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relative clauses
 

Non-defining relative clauses

 
 
 

Grammatical form

noun, + relative pronoun + relative clause , + main clause

The River Nile, which is over 6,500 kilometres long, is Egypt's main source of water.
The modern Olympic Games, which take place every four years, were first held in 1896.

main clause, + relative pronoun + relative clause

He was reading a book, which was very unusual.

 
 

General use of non-defining relative clauses

Non-defining relative clauses contain information about nouns.

The River Nile, which is over 6,500 kilometres long, is Egypt's main source of water.

This example contains information about the noun the River Nile.

The modern Olympic Games, which take place every four years, were first held in 1896.

This example contains information about the noun the modern Olympic Games

The are called non-defining or non-identifying relative clauses to avoid confusion with defining relative clauses.
 

Extra information in non-defining relative clauses

Non-defining relative clauses give extra information about a noun (a thing, a person, a place etc.) They do not tell us which person or thing that we are talking about as that is already clear.

The River Nile, which is over 6,500 kilometres long, is Egypt's main source of water.

It is clear which river - there is only one river Nile. The relative clause which is over 6,500 kilometres long is extra information.

The modern Olympic Games, which take place every four years, were first held in 1896.

It is clear which games - there is only one modern competition called the Olympic Games. The relative clause which take place every four years is extra information.


Without a non-defining relative clause the sentence still makes sense
Sentences containing non-defining relative clauses are grammatical and have meaning if you remove the non-defining relative clause :

The River Nile, which is over 6,500 kilometres long, is Egypt's main source of water.

The River Nile is Egypt's main source of water is a complete grammatical sentence.

The modern Olympic Games, which take place every four years, were first held in 1896.

The modern Olympic Games were first held in 1896 is a complete grammatical sentence.
 

Position of the relative pronoun

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

The Eiffel Tower, which was built in 1887, is not far from the Louvre museum.

The relative clause, which was built in 1887, relates to the Eiffel Tower.
If you want to add a non-defining relative clause to the Louvre museum, it must go immediately after the word museum:

The Eiffel Tower is not far from the Louvre museum, which contains the famous portrait, the Mona Lisa

It is clear that it is the Louvre museum and not the Eiffel Tower that contains the Mona Lisa.
 

Punctuation: commas

Non-defining relative clauses are separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.
 

Non-defining relative clauses which relate to the whole of the main clause

Relative clauses usually relate to a noun or noun phrase within the main clause. However, some non-defining relative clauses can relate to the whole of the main clause of the sentence.

We had some ice-cream for dessert which was very unusual.
We had some ice-cream for dessert, which was very unusual.

In the first example, the defining relative clause which was very unusual, relates only to the noun ice-cream - it was an unusual type of ice-cream, e.g. it was chicken flavoured, or black in colour etc.
In the second example, the non-defining relative clause, which was very unusual, relates to the whole of the main clause We had some ice-cream for dessert.
This time we are not saying the ice-cream was unusual. We are saying that it was unusual to have ice-cream for dessert - we do not usually eat ice-cream for dessert.
 

Choice of relative pronoun

Things
Use which for objects (things). Do not use that in non-defining relative clauses

The station, which was built in 1906, is due to be demolished.

People
Use who for people. Do not use that in non-defining relative clauses

John Woo, who was born in China, has made a successful career in Hollywood.

Possessives
Use whose for possessives.

The author, whose works have been translated into 50 languages, is working on a new novel.

Places
Use where or preposition + which (formal) for places.

The family home in New Orleans, where Munroe spent much of his childhood, has recently been opened to the public.

The family home in New Orleans, in which Munroe spent much of his childhood, has recently been opened to the public.

Times
Use when or preposition + which for times.

Christmas Day, when many people stay at home, is a quiet day in many western countries.

Christmas Day, on which many people stay at home, is a quiet day in many western countries.

 

Omitting the relative pronoun

The relative pronoun is never omitted with non-defining relative clauses.
 

Where or which for places?

Students are sometimes unsure which relative pronoun to use when referring to a place.
The relative pronoun where means in which (or some other preposition + which: at which, on which etc.)

The old palace, where the royal family once lived, is now open to the public.
He recently returned to St John's College, where he had studied as an undergraduate.

In the first example, the relative clause relates to the noun palace. It tells us the royal family once lived in the old palace.
In the second example, the relative clause relates to the noun St John's College. It tells us he had studied at St John's College.
The information in these relative clauses contains the prepositions in and at.These prepositions must be included in the relative clauses. There are three ways of doing this:
(i) We can use the relative pronoun where. As we have noted, it means in (or some other preposition) + which.

The old palace, where the royal family once lived, is now open to the public.

(ii) We can include the preposition at the end of the clause. This is common in spoken English.

The old palace, which the royal family once lived in, is now open to the public.

(This example is not very natural as non-defining relative clauses are not common in informal spoken English.)
(iii) We can include the preposition before the relative pronoun. This is common in formal written English.

The old palace, in which the royal family once lived, is now open to the public.


When there is no preposition in the information contained in the relative clause - when the noun is the direct object of the relative clause - we use which, that, who etc.

The main building, which was built in 1968, is currently being renovated.
We stayed at the Royal Hotel, which is conveniently located for the museums and shops.

ESL quizzes for Non-defining relative clauses
word ordering
Non-defining relative clauses 1
Put the phrases in the correct order to make a sentence about Chinese New Year.
Non-defining relative clauses 2
Put the phrases in the correct order to make a sentence about Christmas.
Non-defining relative clauses 3
Put the phrases in the correct order to make a sentence about Bruce Lee.
quiz
Non-defining relative clauses quiz 4
Choose the correct forms of sentences about Hong Kong celebrities.

ESL lesson plans

How Donald Trump got rich: a tale of three Trumps

US Election ESL worksheet 1 Donald Trump ESL worksheet 2 Donald Trump worksheet 3 Donald Trump ESL worksheet 4 Donald Trump ESL worksheet 5 Donald Trump ESL worksheet 6
B1 / B2 Complete lesson Skills: split reading; discussion; role play Vocabulary: business and economics

Download A Tale of Three Trumps for B1/B2 (PDF)
C1 Complete lesson Skills: split reading; discussion; Grammar: participle clauses

Download A Tale of Three Trumps for C1 (PDF)
 

US Election Special 2016

US Election ESL worksheet 1 US Election ESL worksheet 2 US Election ESL worksheet 3 US Election ESL worksheet 4
B2/C1 Complete lesson Vocabulary: politics, elections; skills: discussing elections and issues.

Download Politics and the US Election (PDF)
 

Wear high heels or go home: gender discrimination at work

Gender descrimination ESL worksheet 1 Gender descrimination ESL worksheet 2 Gender descrimination ESL worksheet 3
B2/C1 Complete lesson Vocabulary work clothes; skills: gender discrimination; grammar: reported speech.

Download Workplace gender discrimination (PDF)
 

English grammar notes

Comparison with as...as

Comprehensive grammar reference notes, illustrated.
Grammar notes on comparison with as..as 1 Grammar notes on comparison with as..as 2 Grammar notes on comparison with as..as 3
Download English grammar notes: comparison with as...as (PDF)