How To Use a Relative Clause

If English isn't your first language or even if you don't often study the mechanics of the language, then defining and using English grammar correctly may have you stumped. Hopefully this guide on how to use a relative clause will help you to understand the language a bit better.

Step 1

Know the function of a relative clause. In the English language, the relative clause is used to provide extra information. If it defines something, it's called a ‘Defining Relative Clause'. If it doesn't really define anything but still gives interesting (although unnecessary) information, it's referred to as a ‘Non-Defining Relative Clause'. Here's an example of both:

  • Defining Relative Clause: The old man who lives behind the dumpster got arrested.
  • Non-defining Relative Clause: My lunch, which I made in 3 minutes, was very tasty.

As you can see, the first example provides important information, while the second example of a relative clause just gives interesting information (that isn't crucial in the sentence.) As well, defining relative clauses never have commas, while unimportant yet interesting information in non-defining relative clauses is always separated by commas. Read on to determine how to use a relative clause.

Step 2

Know when relative clauses are used. Relative clauses are used in both written and spoken English. It is more common to use non-defining clauses in written (rather than in spoken) English language. But both are acceptable ways of using a relative clause.

Step 3

Introduce the relative clause correctly. In order to use a relative clause in your speech, you first need to introduce it. This requires that you use certain words to precede the relative clause. Depending on the information in the relative clause, you can either introduce a relative clause with:

  • a relative pronoun, like who / which / what / that / whose / whom; or
  • no relative pronoun; or
  • where/ why / when instead of a relative pronoun.

Step 4

Decide which relative pronoun to use. When you introduce your relative clause and it requires that you use a relative pronoun, you'll need to think about which relative pronoun is appropriate for that particular sentence. Here are some pointers to help you use relative clauses correctly:

  • In defining relative clauses, people are introduced using who / that (when they're the subject), that / who / whom (when they're the object) or whose (when the person is possessive of something). Objects in defining relative clauses are introduced using which / that (when they're the subject or the object), and whose / of which (if they're possessive of something). Here are some examples:

Children who don't do their homework will not get good grades.  (Notice this defining relative clause uses who to introduce the people in it since they are the subject, but that would also be acceptable.)

That's the dog that I want for my birthday. (Notice that this defining relative clause uses that to tell about the object in it (the dog), but it is also acceptable to use which, or even nothing at all.)

  • In non-defining relative clauses, information about people is preceded by who (when it's the subject or object), and whose (when it is possessive). Information about objects is preceded by which (if it is the subject or object) and whose / of which (if the thing is possessive). Here are some examples:

Oprah Winfrey, who loves dogs, is a famous television host. (Notice how this non-defining relative clause uses who to precede the unimportant information about the person or subject).

The student, whose name she could not remember, waved to the teacher. (Notice how, since the person in this sentence is possessive of the name, the word whose is used to precede the non-defining relative clause).

Step 5

Determine when you need to use where, why and when instead of a relative pronoun. There will be times in the English language when you will need to use a preposition instead of a relative pronoun after a noun in a relative clause. Use where to refer to a place, use why to refer to a reason, and use when to refer to a time. (Keep in mind that in defining relative clauses you can leave out why and when, but you must always leave where in the sentence.) Here are some examples.

The teacher wants to know the reason why you are late for class. (This relative clause refers to a reason, so the word why is used.)

Her friends went to a place where they could secretly plan her party. (This defining relative clause uses where to introduce the information because it refers to a place.)

As you can see, relative clauses introduce important or interesting information in a sentence. It takes some time to determine what pronouns, prepositions or other words to use to introduce a relative clause, but in time you'll find that relative clauses are easy to use when speaking English.


Share this article!

Follow us!

Find more helpful articles: