Relative Clauses

Even relatively experienced teachers often find relative clauses confusing. Perhaps because of this, students also have difficulty with them so it is essential for you to have a good grasp of the basics. Essentially, a relative clause gives information about the subject of the sentence in which it is contained. There are two types of relative clause: Defining and Non-defining. Defining relative clauses contain information that in some way limit the subject. Non-defining clauses, on the other hand, merely add information about the subject.

The following sentences contain relative clauses:

  • My daughter, who is now twenty, has moved to Birmingham.
  • The tree that is marked with a white cross is going to be cut down.

Sentence 1 above contains a non-defining relative clause while sentence 2 contains a defining relative clause. You should notice that the non-defining relative clause is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas. If you take away the non-defining clause the basic meaning of the sentence remains intact. To understand the use of the defining relative clause in the second sentence we have to set a context. Imagine that the tree in question is in an orchard. If we removed the defining relative clause from the sentence leaving 'The tree is going to be cut down', would we know which tree? Of course not, because the information contained in the defining relative clause is absolutely essential in order for us to be able to identify the tree.

So what is all the fuss about then? This seems a relatively simple concept. Well, have a look at the following two sentences and then ask yourself which of them could mean that the unusual thing was the fact that I had a meal at a local restaurant and how you would explain this to an EFL student.

  • Today, I had a meal at a local restaurant that was very unusual.
  • Today, I had a meal at a local restaurant which was very unusual.

The answer is that the relative pronoun 'which' can be used to refer to the whole of the previous clause. The relative pronoun 'that' in the first sentence can only refer to the local restaurant being unusual.

Mini Quiz №. 1

Assuming correct usage of the relative clauses in the following sentences decide which are defining and on how they limit the meaning of the subject.

My husband who is a musician has left me.
My brother, who lives in France, is coming to visit me.
That's the man whose house burnt down the other night.
She is the woman who I was telling you about.
Is there a shop where I can get some plasters near here?
Do you know the reason why I can't come with you?
Who was that handsome man you were with when I saw you with yesterday?
My car, which is ten years old now, has broken down again.

[Check answers]

Prospective teachers and students should understand that defining relative clause are very rarely uttered in real life: they are mostly found in written form. This is intended only as an introduction to relative clauses those wishing to know more should refer to Michael Swan's Practical English Usage or to another EFL grammar reference.

Answers to Quiz №. 1 Relative Clauses

Relative Clauses

Question Clause Type Function
1DefiningLimits the group of 'my husbands' to one. This implies that the subject has more than one husband!
2Non-definingOnly a comment. The only inference that can be drawn is that as it was not necessary to use a defining clause the subject has only one brother.
3DefiningLimits the group of 'all men' to the man we both know whose house burnt down the other night.
4DefiningLimits group of 'all women' to the woman that I was telling you about.
5DefiningLimits group of 'shops' to those that sell plasters.
6DefiningLimits group of all reasons to the one that explains 'why I can't come with you.'
7DefiningLimits group of 'all men' to the one 'I saw you with yesterday.'
8Non-definingOnly a comment. Implies that age is the reason it broke down.

Foundation TEFL methodology course
  • Engaging & interactive assignments
  • Based on decades of combined experience
  • Learn anywhere at any time