Relative clauses

Relative clauses

I received the following question from an intrepid English student this week:

“What are relative clauses, when do I use them and what is the difference between which and that?”


A relative clause is a clause containing the pronouns who, which, that or whom.

They can be split into two categories: Defining – these modify or define the subject (or noun) in the sentence and non-defining – these add extra information to your sentence.

We use the relative pronoun who when we are talking about people and which when we are talking about animals and things.  We can use that for people, animals or things.



Defining relative clauses do not need commas.

What do they look like? Here are some examples of defining relative clauses:

“The lady who teaches me English is from Britain.”

“The English course which I have chosen lasts for 10 weeks.”

“The book that we are learning grammar from is really helpful.”


Have you ever heard somebody use the word whom in a sentence and wondered why they used it? Well this is used to refer to the object of the verb in a sentence. For example:

“The people with whom I am learning English are very friendly.”

This is not very often used in conversational English as it sounds very formal. It is more common to say who with a preposition following it:

”The people who I am learning English with are very friendly.”



Non-defining relative clauses give additional information to your sentence. This information is not necessary to understand who or what is being referred to. We put commas around non-defining relative clauses in a sentence.


Non-defining relative clause (with commas)

“His sister, who works at the art gallery in town, teaches painting class once a week.”

He only has one sister and she works at the art gallery.

Defining relative clause (without commas)

“His sister who works at the art gallery in town teaches painting class once a week.”

He has more than one sister. The one I am talking about works at the art gallery. The relative clause is necessary to understand which sister I am referring to.


We can use them to make our written and conversational English sound more fluent by joining separate sentences using relative clauses.

Complete the gaps in the sentences below to practice using relative clauses.


“The man is wearing a red coat. He is my neighbour.”

“The man _______________ is my neighbour.”


“I have a new car. It is fast and reliable.”

“I bought a new car ____________ fast and reliable.”


You can post your answer in the comments below or email me directly. If you would like to know more about relative clauses, have any questions regarding English grammar or would like to arrange a free trial lesson, you can contact me here or send an email to



Reference: Daily Writing TipsBritish Council, Chomp Chomp, Cambridge Dictionaries Online

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