Relative clauses in English
functions of relative clauses in English grammar
For information on nominal relative clauses, and on other relative pronouns or adjectives such as whatever or when or whenever, see part 2 ► Relative pronouns and adjectives
- Clauses with the relative pronoun as subject
- Clauses with the relative pronoun as object
- The relative pronoun as a possessive
- Relative clauses starting with a preposition
- More complex structures
- Defining and non-defining relatives, and punctuation.
- Relative clauses which qualify a whole sentence, not just a noun.
- Omission of the relative pronoun
- (Extra information for French speakers)
I know someone who eats red hot chilli peppers.
After the antecedent those, who is almost always required:
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 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 on the table is mine is perfectly acceptable.
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 that I saw yesterday is 99.
The man I saw yesterday is 99.
The relative, whether mentioned or not, is the only object of the clause, and there can be no second object following the verb.
Thus we cannot say or write :
The man whom I saw him yesterday is 99. nor The man I saw him yesterday is 99
When an inanimate object is referred to, the same rules apply, except that whom is never used: it is replaced by which.
The book which I was reading was very interesting, or
The book I was reading was very interesting
Omission: when it is the object of the relative clause, the relative pronoun can often be omitted, particularly in written English. as in the last example.
The man whose car I borrowed is very rich.
I chose the set whose price was reduced.
Whose is that bag over there?
Whose bag is that over there?
The chair on which I sat down collapsed.
In the town where I was born lived a man who sailed to sea (Beatles: Yellow Submarine)
4.2. If the relative pronoun is omitted, then the preposition 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 chair I sat down on collapsed.
5.1 Preposition + possession:
It is to my parents, thanks to whose generosity I was able to complete my studies, that I am most grateful.
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.
6.1. A "Defining" relative clause (also called a restrictive or integrated relative clause) is one which is essential for the understanding of a statement.
Cars which can do 150 miles per hour are pointless.
Cars that can do 150 miles per hour are pointless.
Commas are not required before and after the relative clause.
6.2. In a non-defining relative clause (also called a non-restrictive relative clause or a supplementary relative clause) , the relative clause is not essential for an understanding of the sentence:
Cars, that were invented at the end of the 19th century, have become a vital part of modern life.
In the second, it is obvious that it is cars in general, not cars from the late 19th century, that are a vital part of modern life.
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:
6.2. Sportsmen, who pay attention to their diet, are not usually over-weight.
6.3. Using that instead of who or which in relative clauses
- The relative pronoun that may be used in English, particularly American English, in defining relative clauses.
- That cannot replace who or which in non-defining relative clauses.
Some grammar books suggest that which or who must be used in defining relative clauses, and that that must be used in non-defining relative clauses, but this is not true, not even in American English, and countless quotes from the best authors demonstrate this.
Don't rely on grammar checkers that come with word-processing software.Furthermore the grammar-check tool on Microsoft Word can be either confusing or just wrong on this point. When the example above, Cars, that were invented at the end of the 19th century, have become a vital part of modern life. was put through the MS Word grammar checker, the group Cars, that were invented was underlined, and the first "correction" suggested was:
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
It was raining yesterday, which was a pity.
There aren't enough tables in the exam room, which is rather a problem.
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 pronounis 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.
Our company currently has enough financial reserves to get by with.
The project our team is currently working on is of huge potential significance.
► Continue to part 2 : Relative pronouns and adjectives
9: for French speakers; click here for information on expressing the French relative pronoun "dont" in English..
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