A relative clause performs a similar function to an adjective in a sentence. It comes immediately after a noun in the main clause, which is called the antecedent, and gives more information about this noun.

A relative clause is introduced by a relative pronoun, such as who, whose, which and that, and this comes immediately after the antecedent.

Relative Clause in English grammar

Who and whom are used when the noun refers to a person, which is used when it refers to a thing and that can be used of either a person or thing. Whom is used when the relative pronoun is the object of the verb in the relative clause.

Whose is used when you want to refer to something relating to the person or thing you are talking about. The bold words in each of the sentences below form a relative clause.

  • That’s the boy who stole the bike.
  • I know the man whose wife was a surgeon.
  • These are the men whose wages have been increased.
  • It is a country whose population is in decline.
  • He is the neighbor whom we like best.
  • Here is the book that I borrowed.
  • I lost the ring which he gave me.
  • He hit the driver that damaged his car.

Sometimes the relative clause divides the parts of a main clause rather than coming after it. The words underlined in each of the sentences below form a relative clause:

  • The house that we liked most was much too expensive for us.
  • The woman whose daughter is ill is very upset.
  • The dream which I had last night was very vivid.

Sometimes there is no relative pronoun at the beginning of the relative clause, as in the bolded clauses below:

  • He was the best cook we ever had.
  • She was not then the rich woman she later became.
  • He wasn’t the man she thought he was.

There are two types of relative clause.

relative clause in english grammar

Defining Relative Clause

A defining relative clause identifies which person or thing you are talking about. The bold words in each of the following sentences form a defining relative clause:

  • I recognized the woman who stole my purse.
  • There is the man whom she adores.
  • He bought the necklace which she had admired.
  • These are the chocolates that Mum likes best.

Non-Defining Relative Clause

A non-defining relative clause is not needed to identify the person or thing that you are talking about, but it gives further information about that person or thing. The bold words in each of the following sentences form a non-defining relative clause:

  • They walked down the town’s main street which was called George Street.
  • He fell in love with the girl next door who became his wife.
  • He got his promotion which was long overdue.

Punctuation in Relative Clauses

Where a non-defining relative clause divides the parts of a main clause it is placed within commas.

  • His two sisters, who were very close to him, never got over his death.
  • The old man, who is nearly 90, has become the oldest person to complete a marathon.

Commas are not used in this way in the case of defining relative clauses.

  • The book that he took was very valuable.
  • The car that we bought proved to be unreliable.

Prepositions in Relative Clauses

When there is a preposition in a relative clause this is often placed at the end of the clause, which is often also the end of the sentence.

Previously it was considered a grammatical error to end a sentence with a preposition, but this attitude has changed. However, the preposition can be put in front of the relative pronoun as long as the sentence so formed sounds natural. This is most often done in formal English, particularly written English.

  • This is what has happened to the society which we live in. or
  • This is what has happened to the society in which we live.
  • Unbelievably, he has given up the job which he trained so hard for. or
  • Unbelievably, he has given up the job for which he trained so hard.
  • This is the kind of behavior that I refuse to put up with.

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