Relative clauses: defining and non-defining
Defining relative clauses
We use defining relative clauses to give essential information about someone or something – information that we need in order to understand what or who is being referred to. A defining relative clause usually comes immediately after the noun it describes.
We usually use a relative pronoun (e.g. who, that, which, whose and whom) to introduce a defining relative clause (In the examples, the relative clause is in bold, and the person or thing being referred to is underlined.):
They’re the people who want to buy our house.
Here are some cells which have been affected.
They should give the money to somebody who they think needs the treatment most.
[talking about an actress]
She’s now playing a woman whose son was killed in the First World War.
In defining relative clauses we often use that instead of who, whom or which. This is very common in informal speaking:
They’re the people that want to buy our house.
Here are some cells that have been affected.
Subject or object
The relative pronoun can define the subject or the object of the verb:
They’re the people who/that bought our house. (The people bought our house. The people is the subject.)
They’re the people who/that she met at Jon’s party. (She met the people. The people is the object.)
Here are some cells which/that show abnormality. (Some cells show abnormality. Some cells is the subject.)
Here are some cells which/that the researcher has identified. (The researcher has identified some cells. Some cells is the object.)
No relative pronoun
We often leave out the relative pronoun when it is the object of the verb:
They’re the people she met at Jon’s party.
Here are some cells the researcher has identified.
In writing, we don’t use commas in defining relative clauses:
This is a man who takes his responsibilities seriously.
This is a man, who takes his responsibilities seriously.
Nouns and pronouns in relative clauses
When the relative pronoun is the subject of the relative clause, we don’t use another personal pronoun or noun in the relative clause because the subject (underlined) is the same:
She’s the lady who lent me her phone. (who is the subject of the relative clause, so we don’t need the personal pronoun she)
She’s the lady who she lent me her phone.
There are now only two schools in the area that actually teach Latin. (that is the subject of the relative clause, so we don’t need the personal pronoun they)
There are now only two schools in the area that they actually teach Latin.
When the relative pronoun is the object of the relative clause, we don’t use another personal pronoun or noun in the relative clause because the object (underlined) is the same:
We had a lovely meal at the place which Phil recommended. (which is the object of the relative clause, so we don’t need the personal pronoun it)
We had a lovely meal at the place which Phil recommended it.
Non-defining relative clauses
We use non-defining relative clauses to give extra information about the person or thing. It is not necessary information. We don’t need it to understand who or what is being referred to.
We always use a relative pronoun (who, which, whose or whom) to introduce a non-defining relative clause (In the examples, the relative clause is in bold, and the person or thing being referred to is underlined.)
Clare, who I work with, is doing the London marathon this year.
Clare, I work with, is doing the London marathon this year.
Doctors use the testing kit for regular screening for lung and stomach cancers, which account for 70% of cancers treated in the western world.
Alice, who has worked in Brussels and London ever since leaving Edinburgh, will be starting a teaching course in the autumn.
We don’t use that to introduce a non-defining relative clause:
Allen, who scored three goals in the first game, was the only player to perform well.
Allen, that scored three goals in the first game, was the only player to perform well.
In writing, we use commas around non-defining relative clauses:
Etheridge, who is English-born with Irish parents, replaces Neil Francis, whose injury forced him to withdraw last week.
In speaking, we often pause at the beginning and end of the clause:
Unlike American firms – which typically supply all three big American car makers – Japanese ones traditionally work exclusively with one maker. (formal)
And this woman – who I’d never met before – came up and spoke to me. (informal)
Defining or non-defining relative clauses?
Sometimes defining and non-defining relative clauses can look very similar but have different meanings.
He has only one brother, and that brother works at the supermarket.
He has more than one brother. The one I’m talking about works at the supermarket.
The money is intended for local charities. All these local charities help the homeless.
The money is intended for local charities. Some of these local charities help the homeless. There are other local charities as well as these.
The information in a defining relative clause is essential, so we can’t leave out the relative clause. The information in a non-defining relative clause is extra information which isn’t essential, so we can leave out the relative clause.
A defining relative clause which we can’t leave out; without this information we do not know which soldier the speaker is referring to.
Non-defining relative clauses which we can leave out:
The tour party was weakened when Gordon Hamilton withdrew yesterday because of a back injury.
We can use that instead of who, whom or which in defining relative clauses, but not in non-defining relative clauses:
I think anyone who speaks in public is nervous beforehand.
I think anyone that speaks in public is nervous beforehand.
Her car, which was very old, broke down after just five miles.
Her car, that was very old, broke down after just five miles.
(Relative clauses: defining and non-defining von English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press.)
- Adjectives and adverbs
Easily confused words
- ’s or of or either?
- Above or over?
- Across, over or through?
- Advice or advise?
- Affect or effect?
- All or every?
- All or whole?
- Allow, permit or let?
- Almost or nearly?
- Alone, lonely, or lonesome?
- Along or alongside?
- Already, still or yet?
- Also, as well or too?
- Alternate(ly), alternative(ly)
- Although or though?
- Altogether or all together?
- Amount of, number of or quantity of?
- Any more or anymore?
- Anyone, anybody or anything?
- Apart from or except for?
- Arise or rise?
- Around or round?
- Arouse or rouse?
- As or like?
- As, because or since?
- As, when or while?
- Been or gone?
- Begin or start?
- Beside or besides?
- Between or among?
- Born or borne?
- Bring, take and fetch
- Can, could or may?
- Classic or classical?
- Come or go?
- Consider or regard?
- Consist, comprise or compose?
- Content or contents?
- Different from, different to or different than?
- Do or make?
- Down, downwards or downward?
- During or for?
- Each or every?
- East or eastern; north or northern?
- Economic or economical?
- Efficient or effective?
- Elder, eldest or older, oldest?
- End or finish?
- Especially or specially?
- Every one or everyone?
- Except or except for?
- Expect, hope or wait?
- Experience or experiment?
- Fall or fall down?
- Far or a long way?
- Farther, farthest or further, furthest?
- Fast, quick or quickly?
- Fell or felt?
- Female or feminine; male or masculine?
- Finally, at last, lastly or in the end?
- First, firstly or at first?
- Fit or suit?
- Following or the following?
- For or since?
- Forget or leave?
- Full or filled?
- Fun or funny?
- Get or go?
- Grateful or thankful?
- Hear or listen (to)?
- High or tall?
- Historic or historical?
- House or home?
- How is …? or What is … like?
- If or when?
- If or whether?
- Ill or sick?
- Imply or infer?
- In the way or on the way?
- It’s or its?
- Late or lately?
- Lay or lie?
- Lend or borrow?
- Less or fewer?
- Look at, see or watch?
- Low or short?
- Man, mankind or people?
- Maybe or may be?
- Maybe or perhaps?
- Nearest or next?
- Never or not … ever?
- Nice or sympathetic?
- No doubt or without doubt?
- No or not?
- Nowadays, these days or today?
- Open or opened?
- Opportunity or possibility?
- Opposite or in front of?
- Other, others, the other or another?
- Out or out of?
- Permit or permission?
- Person, persons or people?
- Pick or pick up?
- Play or game?
- Politics, political, politician or policy?
- Price or prize?
- Principal or principle?
- Quiet or quite?
- Raise or rise?
- Remember or remind?
- Right or rightly?
- Rob or steal?
- Say or tell?
- So that or in order that?
- Sometimes or sometime?
- Sound or noise?
- Speak or talk?
- Such or so?
- There, their or they’re?
- Towards or toward?
- Wait or wait for?
- Wake, wake up or awaken?
- Worth or worthwhile?
- Nouns, pronouns and determiners
Prepositions and particles
- Among and amongst
- At, in and to (movement)
- At, on and in (place)
- At, on and in (time)
- Beneath: meaning and use
- By + myself etc.
- For + -ing
- In front of
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- Prepositional phrases
Words, sentences and clauses
- about words, clauses and sentences
- as and as expressions
- comparing and contrasting
- conditionals and wishes
- linking words and expressions
- questions and negative sentences
- relative clauses
- reported speech
- so and such
- word formation
- word order and focus
- Using English
Das Wort des Tages
a period of time during which an animal or person that might have a disease is kept away from other people or animals so that the disease cannot spread