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Grammar: Relative Clauses (sentence construction)

"Relative Clauses" strengthen your writing by making your writing more concise and precise. Find out how to use them correctly here. 

"Relative Clauses" are used to combine sentences

For example, say you have these two sentences:

My brother lives in Brazil. 
My brother plays tennis. 

You can combine the sentences using FANBOYS *click here if you're not familiar with the FANBOYS
  • My brother lives in Brazil, and he plays tennis. 

Or you can combine the sentences using a Relative Clause.
  • My brother who plays tennis lives in Brazil. 
  • My brother who lives in Brazil plays tennis. 

The portion highlighted in brown is the relative clause. As you can see, it begins with the word "who" and then a verb follows (plays / lives). The relative pronoun "who" is used because "My brother" is a person. In this case, "My brother" is the noun that the relative clause tells more about. But what if the noun isn't a person? Which relative pronoun do we use?

Match the relative pronoun to the correct sentence. 

Relative Pronouns:
which, that, whose whom

  1. Do you know the boy _______ mother is a nurse?
  2. I was invited by the professor ________ I met at the conference. 
  3. I don't like the table _______ stands in the kitchen. 
  4. He couldn't read _______ surprised me. 

So, the relative pronoun should come just ___ before / after __ the thing it tells more about.

So, ____, ______, and ______are for people, and _____and ______ are for everything else.

Check answers. 

Let's try some practice. Combine the following sentences by using a relative clause.

  1. One of the boys was waiting in the hall. He expected a phone call. 
  2. Some train passengers wanted to go to Liverpool. They had to change in Manchester.
  3. You lent me a bike. It was damaged in an accident. You heard about the accident from a friend. 
  4.  I told you about a film. The film will be released on video next month. It was filmed in New Zealand. 

Check answers.


How many brothers do I have?

You may have seen sentences with relative clauses that use commas (,). It's important to know when to use commas because the comma usage changes the meaning of the sentence. Let's examine how below. 

My brother who plays tennis lives in Brazil.
  1. What's the subject of the sentence? 
  2. Which brother lives in Brazil?
  3. How many brothers do I have?

My brother, who plays tennis, lives in Brazil. 
  1. What's the subject of the sentence?
  2. Which brother lives in Brazil?
  3. How many brothers do I have?

So, when the relative clause defines the subject, we___ do / do not___use commas.  

When the relative clause does NOT define the subject, we ___do / do not ___use commas.  

Check answers. 

Let's try some practice. Combine these sentences by using  relative clause. You may need to add commas if it's a non-defining relative clause. 

  1. Granada is a very fine city to visit. It gets quite cold in the winter.  
  2. A boy was waiting in the hall.  The boy was expecting a phone call. 
  3. John Kenny was a popular president. He gave inspirational speeches. 

Check answers. 

What about for places and time?

This is the season _when__ all the leaves fall off the trees. 
This is a building __where_ goods are stored.  
This is the reason __why__ I left school. 

When, where, and why are called relative adverbs, but they are used exactly like relative pronouns. They are used for time (season), place (building), and reasons (reason).

Final Remarks

Sometimes it's okay to use "that" for people. In any type of formal writing, the word "that" is inappropriate to use for people. In casual conversation, it's no big deal.

British English uses "which" with defining clauses while North American English tends to use "that" for defining clauses and "which" for non-defining clauses, exclusively.  In any case, the word "that" should never be used for non-defining clauses (relative clause with commas).

It's commonplace for people to replace "whom" for "who". Typically, "whom" should be used for people that are objects of a sentence and if the relative clause is non-defining. Practically, most people won't catch the difference between "who" or "whom".

However, do you think relative pronouns are always necessary to begin a relative clause? Also, have you ever seen sentences with the phrases "in which", "of which", "at which" or "for which"? Why are they worded like that?

Continue to advanced Relative Clauses (coming soon!) to find the answers to these questions and more.


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