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grammar  >  defining relative clauses




noun (+ relative pronoun) + relative clause

Have you read the message (that) I sent you yesterday?
She was talking to some people (who) she works with.
That's the hotel where we stayed on holiday.



(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.


General use of defining relative clauses

 


Defining relative clauses contain information about nouns.

Have you read the message (that) I sent you yesterday?

This example contains information about the noun message.

She was talking to some people (who) she works with.

This example contains information about the noun people.

That's the hotel where we stayed on holiday.

This example contains information about the noun hotel.

They are called defining relative clauses or identifying relative clauses because they tell us which person or thing the speaker means.

Have you read the message (that) I sent you yesterday?

The relative clause that I sent you yesterday tells us which message; it defines or identifies the message.

Without a defining relative clause the meaning is unclear
Defining relative clauses often do not make sense when the defining relative clause is removed, or it is unclear exactly what the speaker is talking about.

Have you read the message that I sent you yesterday?

The defining relative clause that I sent you yesterday contains essential information as it tells us which message. Without this clause we only have an unclear question:

Have you read the message?

This is grammatically complete but it is unclear which message the speaker means unless is was specified earlier.

That's the hotel we stayed in last year.

The defining relative clause we stayed in last year contains essential information about the hotel. Without it we only have:

That's the hotel

This makes little sense on its own unless the hotel was specified earlier.
(The other main type of relative clause is a non-defining relative clause. Read more about non-defining relative clauses.)
Omitting the relative pronoun

 


The relative pronoun in a defining relative clause is often left out (omitted), especially in spoken English. However, sometimes it cannot be omitted.
When the relative pronoun is also the subject of the relative clause, it must be written.

That's the man who interviewed me.

The relative pronoun who relates to the noun the man and is the subject of the relative clause. It cannot be omitted.
That's the man interviewed me is incorrect.

When the relative pronoun is not the subject of the relative clause, it can be omitted.

That's the woman that I met at the conference.

The relative pronoun that relates to the woman. The woman is not the subject of the relative clause in this sentence. I is the subject of the relative clause and can be omitted:

That's the woman I met at the conference.


Position of the relative pronoun

 


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

I read the book that I told you about on the train.

In this example, the relative clause that I told you about relates to the book, not the train. (I told you about a book.)

If we change the position of the relative clause, the meaning is different:

I read the book on the train that I told you about.

Here the relative clause that I told you about relates to the train. (I told you about a train.)
Choice of relative pronoun

 


Use that or which for objects (things).

There's the bag that I lost.
Where's the bag which I gave you?

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 which / that + preposition (preposition + which in more formal written texts) or where for places.

The town where we lived.
The town which we lived in.
The town in which we lived.

The last of these is formal and more common in written English.
Use preposition + which or when for time.

It's a day when everyone celebrates.
It's a day on which everyone celebrates.
It was a time when people lived in caves.
It was a time in which people lived in caves.


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.)

That's the house where I was born.
That the house where I live.

In these examples the relative clauses relate to the noun the house. They tell us I was born in that house and I live in that house.The information in these relative clauses contains a preposition, in. This preposition must be included in the relative clause. There are three ways of doing this:

We can use the relative pronoun where. As we have noted, it means in which.

That's the house where I was born.

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

That's the house (that) I was born in.

We can include the preposition before the relative pronoun. This is common in formal written English.

That's the house in which I was born.

When we put the preposition before the pronoun, we always use which, not that, for things.

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.

That's the house (which / that) I bought.
That's the house (which / that) I share with my friends.


In these examples, the pronoun (which or that) can be omitted as it is not the subject of the clause.
Other ways of adding information to nouns

 


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.

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 beautiful Lake Geneva view hotel.