Relative Clauses | Definition, Types & Examples

Relative Clauses | Definition, Types & Examples

Must read: 40 Examples of a Relative Clause

What is a Relative Clause?

In this article, you’ll learn the concept of relative clauses and how we use them. It will especially help you understand how we use relative pronouns such as who, where, that, which, etc., to form them.
To understand what a relative clause is, examine the following sentence.
My teacher is a kind man.
The word kind in this sentence describes the noun teacher. It is called an adjective. Let’s add some more words to this adjective.
My teacher is a man who is kind to every student.
The group of words ‘who is kind to every student.’ has the subject who and the verb is and does the function of an adjective in this sentence. Such a group of words that has its own subject and verb and does the function of an adjective in a sentence is called an adjective or relative clause.
Example 2
Examine the following two independent clauses.
  • The poet was a man of great talent.
  • He wrote this poem.
We can connect these two sentences/independent clauses using the relative pronoun who.
The poet who wrote this poem was a man of great talent.
You had seen an independent clause become a subordinate clause when we added the relative pronoun who. “who wrote this poem’ is a subordinate relative clause that describes the noun poet in this sentence.

Definition of Relative Clause

It is also called an adjective clause, is a type of subordinate clause that identifies or provides descriptive information about a noun or pronoun. The relative clause talks about the kind of person or thing the speaker refers to.
  • The essay, which my fellow wrote last month, received an A grade.
In this sentence, the subordinate clause ‘which my fellow wrote last month’ is a relative clause that modifies the noun essay.
  • Students who come late will not be allowed to enter the classroom.
The relative clause ‘who come late’ identifies the noun students in this sentence.
The noun or noun phrase/clause or pronoun that is commented on by the relative clause in a sentence is called the antecedent. In the above two sentences, the noun essay and students are the antecedents.

How to Begin a Relative Clause?

We usually begin them using either relative pronouns or relative adverbs. A relative pronoun goes at the beginning of a relative clause and is related to a noun or a pronoun that is understood or formerly mentioned.
Common relative pronouns that begin relative clauses are who, what, whom, whose, which, and that, and common relative adverbs are when, where, and why.
It is preferred to put relative clauses immediately after or as close as possible to the nouns they modify.
We begin a relative clause using the relative ‘who’ to refer to people. It doesn’t use for things.
  • I don’t know anyone who lives in this village.
  • A mechanic is someone who repairs cars.
  • Hands up every student who would like to participate in the competition.
A relative pronoun used in these clauses performs three main functions.
1- It refers to a noun or pronoun mentioned before in a sentence. For example
  • Ahmad is a man whom you can trust.
(Here, the relative pronoun ‘whom’ refers to the noun man)
2- The second function of a relative pronoun is making a connection between the relative clause and the rest of the sentence. For example
  • I need a woman that looks after my son.
(The relative clause and the independent clause are connected by the relative pronoun that.)
First Sentence: The thief was arrested.
Second Sentence: The thief had robbed the house.
We can join these two sentences using the relative pronoun who.
  • The thief was arrested who had robbed the house.
3- It acts as the subject, object, etc. of its own clause.
  • The boy whom I wanted to meet was away. (whom is the object)
  • I met David, who is a trusted man. (Who acts as the subject)

Forming Relative Clauses Using Who, Whom and That

Relative clauses are made of a subject, a verb, and may also have an object. The relative pronouns that begin the relative clauses can be the subject or object of that relative clause.
The relative pronouns in each sentence below are the subject of their respective relative clause.
  • The man who was there was my uncle.
  • I know the boy who eats hot chili peppers.
  • Who was the boy who sat with you this morning?
The pronoun who means ‘the people that’ is used to talk about people in relative clauses. The pronoun ‘that’ is also used to refer to people. We can’t use which for people.
  • Any boy who wants to admit to this institution is direct to submit their documents.
  • A waiter who served us was a very older man.
  • The man that lives in the above apartment is an engineer.
When a relative pronoun is the object of the clause, it still comes at the beginning of the clause. The two pronouns whom or that is usually used for human when they act as the direct object of the clause.
  • The police officer was angry whom I met yesterday.
  • The police officer was angry that I met yesterday.
In this sentence, the part ‘whom I met yesterday is a relative clause where the pronoun whom is the object.
  • The boy whom we met gave us some confidential information.
  • The waiter was very nice, whom I met at the party last Friday.

Forming Relative Clauses Using That and Which

To talk about things in relative clauses, we use that or which. We cannot omit these pronouns when they are used as the subject of a relative clause. The pronoun ‘which’ is used when the antecedent is an animal, a thing, or an idea.
In each relative clause below, the relative pronouns are the subject of the relative clause.
  • Where were my shoes which were under the table?
  • Did you know the nearest shop that sells pure milk?
  • The phone that’s on the suitcase is mine.
  • The phone which is on the suitcase is mine.
The relative pronouns that and which are the object of the relative clause in the below sentences.
  • The storybook which/that I read made me sleepy.
  • The student asked many questions from his teacher, which he couldn’t answers.
  • A hammer is a tool which we used to pound nails.
When these relative pronouns are used as the object, we can omit them.

Forming Relative Clauses Using Whose, Where, Why, and When

They can also be formed using relative adjective whose or relative adverb where or when. The relative adverb when means at which, where means in which, and why means for which.
The relative adjective ‘whose’ is used to talk about something belonging to a person, i.e., it shows possession.
Take the following two sentences.
  • The man cried loudly.
  • His bike was stolen.
We can make a relative clause by combining these two sentences using the relative pronoun whose.
  • The man whose bike was stolen cried loudly.
(In this sentence, ‘whose bike was stolen.’ a relative clause describes the noun man.)
  • He is a police officer whose performance has been amazing.
  • The boy, whose father is a judge, goes safe to his trial.
The relative pronoun whose sometimes used to talk about things such as towns/countries and organizations.
  • Many companies whose products are less expensive are generating more revenues.
     (In this sentence, whose refer to companies.)
When and where are relative words that refer to place and time, respectively.
  • If you don’t mind, show me the room where you live.
  • We are waiting for the day when my brother will be released from prison.
(We are waiting for the day of my brother’s release)
  • There are times when the truth cannot be told.
  • Can I ask the reason why the boy seems to have the blues?

Forming Relative Clauses Using Whereby

To refer to a process in a sentence, we use whereby.
  • He has a new machine whereby we submit our assignments online.
  • The university will introduce a new system whereby students save more money from leaving outside the university

Forming Relative Clauses whatever, whoever, whichever

Relative clauses can also be formed using whatever, whichever, whoever, and to talk about things or people that are indefinite.
  • I always enjoyed eating whatever she cooked.
(In this sentence, the relative word whatever means anything)
  • Whoever comes first will be given a $2000 prize.
(whoever means any person who)
  • Whichever one of the boys broke the rules will be fined.
(whichever refers to one person from a limited number of boys.)

Relative Clauses with Prepositions 

To form relative clauses after prepositions, we use preposition + which to refer to things, and preposition + whom to refer to people. After a preposition, we can’t use who instead of whom, and the relative pronoun ‘that.’
  • The child with whom we were playing was disabled.
  • It is not the source from which we have got our information.
  • The rate at which gas expands depends on the heat of the container.
  • The city in which the university locates is very polluted.
  • I like the family whom I am living with.
A preposition goes at the end position in a clause when the relative pronoun is omitted. For example, we omit the relative pronoun from the above sentence.
  • The child we were playing with was disabled.
  • The movie which/that we went to has an unhappy ending.
  • OR The movie we went to has an unhappy ending.
The placement of a preposition at the beginning of a relative clause is very formal. However, the preposition in a relative clause can be placed later in formal English.
  • The money wasn’t spent by the boy who it was given for.
  • The room which I am living in is very hot.

Rules of Relative Clauses

The object pronoun need not to be repeated when a relative pronoun is the object of the clause.
  • Due Date is a comedy movie. I have watched it several times.
  • Due Date is a comedy movie which I have watched several times. (We do not need to repeat the object pronoun it)
A relative pronoun, when used as the object of a relative clause, can be left out. For example, in the above sentence, we can remove the relative pronoun which.
  • Due Date is a comedy movie I have watched several times.
Use whose followed by a noun as an alternative to of whom or of which.
  • We live in a country whose economic future / the economic future of which should be secure.
The relative pronouns who, that, and which can be used as the subject of the relative clause.
  • I always watch this movie which is my favorite movie.
  • The man who/that bought the car lives in another city.
The relative pronouns who(m), that, and which can be the object of the relative clause.
  • I sold the laptop. My brother gave me the laptop.
  • I sold the laptop which my brother gave me.
The relative pronoun used in relative clauses can be the object of a preposition.
  • The boy to whom I gave my phone paid me $200.
A relative clause should go after the antecedent (an antecedent can be a noun or pronoun) qualified by the relative clause.
  • The boy had told us the home where he stayed last night.
The verb of the relative clause should be in the same form (singular/plural) as the verb of the antecedent.

What are the 2 Types of Relative Clauses with Examples?

Relative clauses are divided into two types based on the information they added to a noun or pronoun mentioned in the main clause.

Defining Relative Clause

When the information a relative clause gives about someone or something is necessary, it is called a defining relative clause. A defining relative clause should not be separated from the main clause by any punctuation; if we omit a defining-relative clause from a sentence, the meaning of a sentence changes. It can go in the middle or end of a sentence.
We usually introduce a defining relative clause using a relative pronoun (e.g., who, whom, whose, that, which, etc.)
  • He is the man who wants to buy my bike.
(In this sentence, the part written in bold is defining relative clause, which is referred to the noun man)
  • The previous Monday was the day when I met my brother after a long time.
  • He’s the man whose leg was broken in an accident.
  • The man didn’t answer the phone that was ringing.
  • The food we ate at the cafe last night was delicious.

Non-restrictive or Non-defining Relative Clause

A relative clause placed after nouns that give us extra information about them, i.e., the information is unnecessary for the sentence to make sense, is called a non-defining relative clause. Because of this, the non-defining relative clause is always separated from their noun by commas. There may be one or two commas depending on the position of the relative clause in a sentence. If it appears in the middle, it takes two commas and if it appears at the end position, it is separated with a single comma.
The following are examples of non-defining relative clauses.
  • I have lost all the money, which my dad had given me for admission.
  • I have decided to spend all my vacation in the USA, which means I won’t be able to meet you for one month.
  • My roommate, whose father died last year, will meet me at the airport.
  • I am looking for a boy, who stole a phone from my room, aged about 14.
  • I have many friends, many of whom, I was at college with.
  • Karachi, where steel comes from, is a populous city in the south of Pakistan.
Since non-defining relative clauses are not essential in the sentence, they can be omitted without confusion. For example
  • My dad, who is very pessimistic, says the crop will be much less this year.
The information ‘who is very pessimistic’ is non-essential, so that we can omit them from this sentence.
  •  My dad says the crop will be much less this year.

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