Relative clauses are another type of clauses in English. A clause is something different than a sentence. One sentence can consist of more clauses.
Let’s have a look at this example.
main clause subordinate clause
My grandmother used to live in a very little house which had only two rooms.
Type of the subordinate clause: relative
Both clauses together are a sentence.
English grammar differentiates a couple of types:
I) ADJECTIVE RELATIVE CLAUSES
- function as noun postmodifiers. In other words, they are used after nouns and give us more information about them.
Relative clauses are introduced by relative pronouns:
We have two types of adjective relative clauses:
1) DEFINING / RESTRICTIVE
- Tells us which one of a group of things or people we are talking about
- The sentence doesn’t usually make complete sense without the relative clause
- We do not use commas to separate the clause
- We can use ‘that’
- ‘that’ is used with all, everybody(one), nobody, superlatives, ordinals, collective nouns
Everybody that participated will get a present.
This is the best that I can do.
- We can leave out the relative pronouns when it is not the subject of the clause.
The house which we saw is on sale. x The house we saw is on sale.
- With ‘where’or ‘when’we do not have to use a preposition.
The place where I asked you to marry me is so different.
2) NON-DEFINING / NON-RESTRICTIVE
- gives us additional information
- the relative clause can be left out and it still makes sense
- clauses are separated by commas
- we cannot leave out the relative pronoun
- we cannot use THAT
- we use which or who
- connective clause: ‘which’ can refer back to the whole preceding sentence, we use a comma: He was telling us jokes the whole night, which was fun.
Relative clauses and differentiating between the two types can be quite helpful. Compare these two examples:
1 My brother Kevin who lives in Adelaide has a very successful career.
2 My brother Kevin, who lives in Adelaide, has a very successful career.
In the first sentence, a defining relative clause is used. We use it without commas because we need to identify which brother. I have more brothers and I mean the one who lives in Adelaide.
In the second example, a non-defining relative clause is used. It could be even left out. In this context, I have only one brother, therefore, there is no need to specify which one.
WHOM or WHO?
As it was said above, ‘whom’ is used for people as the object of the relative clause. ‘Whom’ is quite formal and that is why it should be used after prepositions. However, in informal English ‘who’ is used the same way. If it is used with a preposition, the preposition goes at the end of the clause.
These are the friends with whom I used to spend most of my free time.
These are the friends who I used to spend most of my free time with.
WHERE or IN WHICH? WHEN or IN WHICH?
Both. ‘Where’ and ‘when’ can really be replaced by a preposition + which and vice versa. Keep in mind, though, that every time we put a preposition at the end of the clause, it will be less formal. This is important to remember for written assignments where a register matters in different styles.
This is a garage in which/where we started our business.
This is a garage which we started our business in.
Do you remember the year in which/when Europe was hit by that terrible heatwave?
REDUCED RELATIVE CLAUSES
- relative clauses can also be shortened
The woman who lives next door sells fresh veggies.
‘Who lives next door’ modifies, provides information about, ‘the woman’ who is the subject of the sentence. We can reduce this sentence to:
The woman living next door sells fresh veggies.
There are more ways and examples how we can reduce relative clauses which you can read about in the next article.
Relative clauses are great for explaining things. Firstly, you can use them for describing words which you do not know what to call in English. Secondly, relative clauses help you make connections between things and give more information about them.
In this task, you can try how to explain simple things. Imagine that somebody does not know these words yet. How would you describe them?
e.g. a coaster - A coaster is a thing that is usually made of paper and which you can find in pubs. It is usually round. It is put under glasses to prevent stains on tables.
· A circus
· A remote control
· A locksmith
· An octopus
· A cemetery
II) NOMINAL RELATIVE CLAUSES
In contrast to the adjective relative clauses mentioned above. These clauses function as nouns.