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Concourse 2

Relative pronoun clauses: the essentials


What is a relative clause?

The dog which howled all night

Relative clauses are a way to define or add information to a noun in a sentence.
So, for example, in
    The dog which howled all night and kept me awake
The noun, dog, is rendered unique among millions of dogs because only this one howled and caused me a sleepless night.  The pronoun which refers back to the noun dog and dog is the subject of the verb howl (the dog howled).  We can make the same idea in English with two sentences like this:

  1. The dog howled all night
  2. The dog kept me awake

but it is easier and clearer to use a relative pronoun to link the ideas.

Here is another example of a slightly different sort of relative clause:
    The White House, that stands on Pennsylvania Avenue, is a huge building
Here, too, we can make two sentences:

  1. The White House stands on Pennsylvania Avenue
  2. The White House is a huge building

The situation is slightly different because we already know that The White House is unique (it's the name of a particular building) so the fact that it stands on Pennsylvania Avenue is just extra information.  The fact that it stands there does not define the building, it just adds data
Look where the commas appear and you will see that the clause is divided from the rest of the sentence.
That's important, as we shall see.


Five types of clause

We use five pronouns to make relative clauses

pronoun use examples
who subject or object pronoun for people The students who had the party are now living over there.
which subject or object pronoun for animals and things
  1. What have you done with the book which I lent you?
  2. The dog, which was lying in the dark, suddenly barked at me.
referring to a whole clause or previously mentioned idea (only which can do this) They fell in love and got married the following month which surprised everyone.
whom object pronoun only for people (formal) Melissa, whom I met at the party, invited me.
whose possession Do you know the man whose car is parked on the corner?
that subject or object pronoun for people, animals and things (who or which are also possible)
  1. I don’t like the book that he gave you.
  2. He’s the man that I saw.
  3. The kids that came with me had lunch on the train.

stature of liberty ghandi

Defining and non-defining relative clauses

Here are four sentences to compare:

What's the difference in meaning between these pairs of sentences?  Try saying the sentences aloud to get a feel for the meaning.
Click here when you have an answer.

  1. At the first meeting, which was held yesterday, the chair invited comments from everyone.
  2. At the first meeting which was held yesterday the chair invited comments from everyone.
  3. The kids, who came with me, had lunch on the train.
  4. The kids who came with me had lunch on the train.

Now look at these four sentences.

Sentence Comment
The Statue of Liberty, which stands in New York, is well known. The clause which stands in New York is between the commas because it is simply adding information concerning the location of something known to us all.
There is only one Statue of Liberty so we do not need to define it.
The Statue of Liberty which stands in New York is well known. There is only one such statue so to omit the commas would be wrong.  You cannot define that which is already unique.
The statue of Gandhi which stands in Tavistock Square is well known. There are many statues of Gandhi around the world so to define a particular one by where it is is acceptable.
The statue of Gandhi, which stands in Tavistock Square, is well known. This is also acceptable.  Here we are talking about a statue of Gandhi but adding information to say where it is, not defining it.

subject or object

Subject or Object?

It's important to know whether the relative pronoun is acting as the subject or the object of the verb.
The subject of a verb is the person or thing that does the action.
The object of the verb is the person or thing that receives the action.
Like this:

Subject Verb Object
The horse threw the rider
Mary made soup

What's the relative pronoun doing in the following examples?  Look at the underlined clauses and decide if they refer to the subject or object of the verb phrase.
Click when you have an answer.

  1. The man who bought the tickets really is just being generous
  2. The tickets, which hopefully will allow us entry, are very welcome
  3. The man that we thanked seemed genuinely surprised
  4. The tickets which he bought were quite expensive
  5. Only the senior doorman, who we gave the tickets to, noticed that they were fakes


Omitting the pronoun

Sometimes, we can leave out the pronoun altogether so instead of:
    The house which he bought
we can have:
    The house he bought
and instead of:
    The woman who(m) you saw in Margate
we can have
    The woman you saw in Margate

In which of these sentences can you omit the relative pronoun?

  1. The book which I read yesterday is on the shelf
  2. The man who gave you the money is very generous
  3. The children who came late were punished
  4. The water which he drank made him unwell
  5. The spider, which he killed, was quite harmless

Can you see what the rule is?
Click here when you have an answer.


Using that

The man that she met  

We can replace who, whom and which with the pronoun that in many cases but there is a rule here, too.

In which of these sentences can that be used as the relative pronoun instead of who, whom or which?
What's the rule?  Click here when you have an answer.

  1. The table, which was too expensive for me anyway, had been sold
  2. The bus which I took to the game was 10 minutes late
  3. The man who(m) she married was quite rich
  4. Mary, who is Fred's sister, is a concert pianist

There is a lot more to learn about relative clauses but at the initial stage of a teaching career, this is plenty.  It's a complicated area and needs careful handling.

Related guides
the in-service guide this is a more technical guide which includes all of this and much more
relative adverbs for more on another form of relative clause using adverbs

Click for a test in this area.