How Do I Use Relative Clauses?

A blue desk with a black coffee and a laptop with the title 'How Do I Use Relative Clauses?' written in dark blue text.

“When should I use ‘which’, ‘who’ and ‘that’?”

If you have wondered about this, you are certainly not alone.

Today, I’m going to explain to you the meaning and usage of relative clauses. A relative clause contains the pronouns who, which, whose, that or whom.

Listen to this blog post on the Intrepid English Podcast here.

There are two kinds of relative clause:

  1. Defining – these modify or define the subject (or noun) in the sentence
  2. 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 or things.  We can use that for people, animals or things.

Defining Relative Clauses

Defining relative clauses do not need commas.

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? When the word who is the object of the verb, it becomes whom. 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

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 do need commas around non-defining relative clauses in a sentence.


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.

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.

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

For example, if we have two short sentences, like these: “Ani likes to play Scrabble. Her English vocabulary is excellent.”

We can merge them using a relative clause to make one longer, more advanced sentence:

“Ani, whose English vocabulary is excellent, likes to play Scrabble.”

Complete the gaps in the sentences below to practice using relative clauses. Use commas where necessary.

“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.”

“We live in a village. The village is quiet and pretty.”

“The village _____________________________________.”

“A woman just walked past my office. Do you know her?”

“Do _________________________________________?”

Post your answers in the comments section below or email us at Intrepid English.

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This blog was written by Intrepid English Teacher and Founder, Lorraine, and recorded by Tom G.

Find out more about Lorraine on her Intrepid English Teacher profile page

If you have any questions, or you would like to request a topic for a future blog, you can contact us using the chat box, or email us at Intrepid English.

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