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English grammar notes - relative clauses - defining

 
 

main clause + relative pronoun + relative clause

(1) There's the man that married her
(2) There's the man (that / who) she married
(3) I'm looking for a book that can teach me how to write in Chinese.

(1) There's the man that married her.
(2) There's the man (that / who) she married.
(3) I'm looking for a book that can teach me how to write in Chinese.

(1) There's the man who / that married her.
(2) There's the man (who / that ) she married.
(3) I'm looking for a book that can teach me how to write in Chinese.


 

General use of defining relative clauses

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Defining relative clauses contain information about a noun.
Examples (1) and (2) contain information about the noun man.
Example 3 contains information about the noun book

See notes below for other ways of adding information to nouns.


They are called defining relative clauses or identifying relative clauses because they tell us precisely which person or thing we are talking about.

Examples (1) and (2)
In each example the noun the man is not clear without the relative clause. If you said to someone, 'There's the man', they would ask you, 'Which man?'

Example (3)
If you went into a shop and said, 'I'm looking for the book', it would be unclear which book or what kind of book you were looking for. The shop assistant would ask you, 'Which book?' or, 'What kind of book?'

If, however, you said, 'There's my brother David,' it would be clear exactly who you were talking about and there would be no need for a clause to define him further.


Note In all of these examples, we know we are talking about a specific noun because the definite article is used.

 

Position of the relative pronoun

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The relative pronoun usually comes immediately after the noun that it relates to.

Consider this example :
I read the book that I told you about on the train.

The relative clause that I told you about relates to the book, not the train.

Imagine the speaker said, I read the book on the train that I told you about.

Here the relative clause that I told you about would relate to the the train.

 

Choice of relative pronoun

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Use that or which for objects (things).
The bag that I lost.
The bag which I lost.


Use that or who for people.
The woman that I met.
The woman who I met.


Use whose for possessives.
The man whose car was stolen.

Use where or which / that + preposition (or preposition + which (formal) for places).
The town where we lived.
The town which we lived in.
The town in which we lived (more formal, written style)


Use when or preposition + which for times.
A day when everyone celebrates.
A day on which everyone celebrates.
A time when people lived in caves.
A time in which people lived in caves.

 

Omitting the relative pronoun

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When the relative pronoun is also the subject of the relative clause, it must be written.

Example (1)
There's the man that married her
The relative pronoun that relates to the man and is the subject of the relative clause.

There's the man married her is wrong


When the relative pronoun is not the subject of the relative clause, i.e. there is a different subject, it can be omitted.

Example (2)
There's the man that she married
The relative pronoun that relates to the man. The man is not the subject of the relative clause in this sentence. She is the subject of the relative cluase and can be omitted:

'There's the man she married'

 

* Notes

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There are other ways of adding information to nouns. For example, by using adjectives, or by using other nouns to make compound nouns. Sometimes this is more efficient when the information you want to add can be expressed in one or two words:

I'm looking for a blue shirt. Not I'm looking for a shirt that is blue.
We stayed in a small hotel. Not We stayed in a hotel that was small.
She bought a Beatles CD. Not She bought a CD which is by the Beatles.

When the information is longer and more complex, a relative clause is often necessary:

We stayed in a hotel that had a beautiful view over Lake Geneva.

There is too much information here to express with adjectives or compound nouns.

We can't say We stayed in a beaufiful Lake Geneva view hotel.



More on this topic

quiz

Relative pronouns quiz
Tests knowledge of both defining and non-defining relative clauses
Relative pronouns quiz
Choose the correct relative pronoun.
Defining relative clauses : omitting the relative pronoun
Decide whether the relative pronoun can be omitted.
Defining relative clauses quiz
10-question multiple-choice quiz

word ordering

Defining relative clauses : word order exercise 1
Arrange the words and phrses in the correct order to make a sentence.
Defining relative clauses : word order exercise 2
Arrange the words and phrses in the correct order to make a sentence.

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