Forms and functions of relative clauses in English
This page looks at relative
in the context of normal relative
, using the principal relative pronouns who that
For information on nominal
, and on other relative pronouns or
adjectives such as whatever
see Relative pronouns and
The relative pronoun as subject
1.1. When the
relative pronoun is subject
of a clause and refers to a human,
the relative pronoun who
is generally used. :
is replaced by that,
especially in American
English and in spoken language:
The man who
next door is 99.
I know someone who
red hot chilli peppers.
his watch was careless.
lost his watch was careless.
is also quite possible.
After the antecedent those, who
is almost always
should go first.
If the relative is the subject
of a clause
and refers to an inanimate
or that must be used.
The book that’s
the table is mine.
The book which
the table is mine.
relative pronoun can
never be omitted.
However, the relative clause can be completely omitted:
book is on the table is mine is
quite impossible, but
book on the table is
mine is perfectly acceptable.
relative pronoun as object:
relative pronoun is the direct object of the
to a human, the pronoun used is either whom
yesterday is 99.
The man that
yesterday is 99.
Alternatively, the relative can be
particularly in spoken language:
The man I saw
yesterday is 99.
Whom is not used very often: that,
omission of the relative pronoun, are much more common.
When an inanimate object
is referred to, the same rules
apply, except that whom is never used: it is
replaced by which.
book that I
was reading was very
I was reading was very
book I was reading was very
are all possible
when it is the object of the relative clause, the relative pronoun can
often be omitted, particularly in written English.
relative pronoun as
is required with both animate and inanimate antecedents: it is the only
derivative of who
which can refer to animates and
know someone whose sister is a nurse.
The man whose
car I borrowed is very rich.
chose the set whose
price was reduced.
Relative clauses starting with a prepositon:
4.1. Note how to
form relative clauses after prepositions: preposition+which
for inanimates or things,
preposition + whom
for people. Stylistically,
this is quite formal.
man with whom
I was talking was angry.
chair on which
I sat down collapsed.
If the relative pronoun is omitted, then the proposition must
come at the end of the clause. Omission of the relative pronoun in
examples like the ones below is actually by far the most common usage
in modern spoken English, and is also common in written style.
man I was talking with was
The chair I
sat down on
More complex structures:
5.1 Preposition + possession:
skills the match most depended, was the goalkeeper.
It is to my parents, thanks
to whose generosity I was able to complete my studies,
that I am most grateful.
5.2. Selective possession
whose customers had deserted it, had to close.
The writer, the
first of whose books had been a bestseller, was
a coal miner.
There are several ways to go from London to Scotland ,
of which is of course by plane.
Defining and non-defining relative clauses.
6.1. A "Defining"
relative clause is one which is essential for the understanding of a
In this example, it is clear that "all
protestors who smash windows" will be arrested. The word
"protestors" in this example is restricted by the relative clause that
who smash windows will be arrested.
Commas are not required
before and after the relative
6.2. In a non-defining
relative clause, the relative clause is not
essential for an
understanding of the sentence:
In this example, the question of age is not an essential bit of
information. The relative clause can be omitted without making the
who are mostly aged under 30, want to express an opinion.
In cases like this, commas are
required before and after the relative clause.
Compare these two examples:
who eat too much tend to have
6.2. Sportsmen, who pay attention to
diet, are not usually over-weight.
clauses which qualify a whole
Sometimes we use a relative clause to qualify not just a
pronoun, but a whole sentence or clause. In such cases, the relative
clause is introduced by which,
that or what. Examples
drank too much, which
is why he was sick.
It was raining yesterday,
was a pity.
There aren't enough tables in the exam room, which is rather a problem.
of the relative pronoun
This point is dealt with above in the sections 2, 3 and 4 above.
Note in particular the question of omitting the relative pronoun in a prepositional relative clause
English grammar books sometimes say that it is bad
style to end a sentence with a preposition;
but this is just not true. On the contrary, when the relative pronoun
is omitted in a prepositional relative clause, the preposition must
come at the end of the clause, even if this is also the end of the
sentence. As stated above, omission of the relative pronoun in
prepositional relative clauses is normal
style in modern English.
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