This page looks
at standard relative clauses
using the principal relative pronouns who that
For information on nominal
, and on other relative pronouns or adjectives such
see part 2 ►
1. Clauses with the relative
pronoun as subject
1.1. When the relative pronoun is subject
a clause and refers to a human,
relative pronoun who is
Sometimes, who is replaced by that,
in American English and in spoken language:
The man who lives
door is 99.
I know someone who eats red hot
The boy that lost
watch was careless.
The boy who lost
his watch was careless.
is also quite possible.
After the antecedent those, who
almost always required:
swim should go first.
1.2.If the relative is the subject
a clause and refers to an inanimate antecedent, which
that must be used.
The book that’s on
table is mine.
The book which is on the table is
a clause, the relative pronoun can
be omitted. However, the relative clause can be completely
is on the table is mine is quite impossible,
The book on the table is mine is
2. Clauses with the relative
pronoun as object:Even if the relative pronoun is the object of the clause, it still stands at the start of the clause.
When the relative pronoun is the direct object of
the clause, and refers to a human,
the pronoun used is either whom or that.
Whom is not used very often: that,
of the relative pronoun, are much more common.
whom I saw yesterday is 99.
The man that I saw yesterday is 99.
Alternatively, the relative can
, particularly in spoken language:
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 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.
The relative pronoun as a possessive
required with both animate and inanimate antecedents: it is the only
of who which can refer to animates and inanimates:
I know someone whose
sister is a nurse.
The man whose car I borrowed is
I chose the set whose price was
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
The man with
whom I was talking was angry.
The chair on which I sat
4.2. If the relative pronoun is omitted, then the
preposition must come at the end of the clause. Omission of the
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
The man I was
The chair I sat down on collapsed.
5. More complex
5.1 Preposition + possession:
The player on whose skills
the match most depended, was the goalkeeper.
It is to my parents, thanks
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 ,
fastest of which is of course by plane.
and non-defining relative clauses.
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.
The first example tells us that "protestors
who smash windows" will be arrested; but suggests that those who do not smash windows will not be arrested. . The word "protestors" in
this example is restricted by the relative clause that defines it.
Protestors who smash
windows will be arrested.
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
clause is not
for an understanding of the sentence:
In the first of these examples, the question of age is not an essential bit
Protestors, who are mostly
aged under 30, want to express an opinion.
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
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
are not usually over-weight.
6.3. Using that instead of who or which in relative clauses
However use of that instead of who or which in defining clauses is an option, not a rule, and a source of plenty of confusion.
- 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
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:
Cars that were invented at the end of the 19th century have become a vital part of modern life ... without commas
this case, the grammar checker has replaced a perfectly acceptable
sentence, with the necessary commas, with a sentence that is grammatically wrong ! Without commas, the relative clause becomes a defining clause, and the sentence now implies that cars from the end of the 19th century are a vital part of modern life, which is clearly not the case.
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
or what. Examples
He drank too much, which
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.
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
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.
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.
► Continue to part 2 : Relative pronouns and adjectives
9: for French
for information on expressing the French
relative pronoun "dont" in English..
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