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Relative Clauses

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 Forms and functions of relative clauses in English

This page looks at relative pronouns in the context of normal relative clauses, using the principal relative pronouns who that and which.
For information on nominal relative clauses, and on other relative pronouns or adjectives such as whatever or when or whenever, see Relative pronouns and adjectives

Relative pronouns can cause trouble in English, specially when they are in unusual forms, such as “whom” or “whose”. And there’s another problem: when to use which  and when to use that? Here are some clear guidelines to help you.
  1. The relative pronoun as subject
  2. The relative pronoun as object
  3. The relative pronoun as a possessive
  4. Relative clauses starting with a preposition
  5. More complex structures
  6. Defining and non-defining relatives, and punctuation.
  7. Relative clauses which qualify a whole sentence, not just a noun.
  8. Omission of the relative pronoun
  9. (Extra information for French  speakers)

1. 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. : 
The man who lives next door is 99.
I know someone who eats red hot chilli peppers.
Sometimes, who is replaced by that, especially in American English and in spoken language: 
The boy that lost his watch was careless.
The boy who lost his watch was careless.
is also quite possible.

After the antecedent those, who is almost always required:
Those who can swim should go first.

1.2. If the relative is the subject of a clause and refers to an inanimate antecedent, which or that must be used.
The book that’s on the table is mine.
The book which is on the table is mine.
Omission: As subject of a clause, the relative pronoun can never be omitted. However, the relative clause can be completely omitted:
The book is on the table is mine   is quite impossible, but
The book on the table is mine   is perfectly acceptable.

2. The relative pronoun as object:

When the relative pronoun is the direct object of the clause, and refers to a human, the pronoun used is either whom or that.
The man whom I saw yesterday is 99.
The man that I saw yesterday is 99.
Alternatively, the relative can be omitted, particularly in spoken language:
     The man I saw yesterday is 99.

is not used very often: that, or 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.
The book that I was reading was very interesting,  or
The book which I was reading was very interesting, or
The book I was reading was very interesting
are all possible   

Omission: when it is the object of the relative clause, the relative pronoun can often be omitted, particularly in written English.

3. The relative pronoun as a possessive

Whose is required with both animate and inanimate antecedents: it is the only derivative of who which can refer to animates and inanimates:
I know someone whose sister is a nurse.
The man whose car I borrowed is very rich.
I chose the set whose price was reduced.

4. 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.
 The man with whom I was talking was angry.
 The chair on which I sat down collapsed.    

4.2.   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.
The man I was talking with was angry.
The chair I sat down on collapsed.    

5. More complex structures:

5.1 Preposition + possession:
The player on whose 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
The café, most of 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 , the fastest of which is of course by plane.

6. Defining and non-defining relative clauses.

6.1. A "Defining" relative clause is one which is essential for the understanding of a statement.
Protestors who smash windows will be arrested.
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 defines it
 Commas are not required before and after the relative clause.

6.2. In a non-defining relative clause, the relative clause is not essential for an understanding of the sentence:
Protestors, who are mostly aged under 30, want to express an opinion.
In this example, the question of age is not an essential bit of information. The relative clause can be omitted without making the sentence meaningless.
     In cases like this, commas are usually required before and after the relative clause.

Compare these two examples:
6.1. People who eat too much tend to have poorer health.
6.2. Sportsmen, who pay attention to their diet, are not usually over-weight.

7: Relative clauses which qualify a whole sentence

Sometimes we use a relative clause to qualify not just a noun or pronoun, but a whole sentence or clause. In such cases, the relative clause is introduced by which, never that or what.

He drank too much, which is why he was sick.
It was raining yesterday, which was a pity.
There aren't enough tables in the exam room, which is rather a problem.

8. Omission 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 (point 4).
   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.
I hope that this is a page you'll really learn something from.
Our company currently has enough financial reserves to get by with.
The project our team is currently working on is of huge potential significance.

9: for French speakers; click here for information on expressing the French relative pronoun "dont" in English..

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Cette page en français:
Les propositions relatives en anglais

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