Relative clauses, also sometimes called adjective clauses, are phrases that add more information to the subject or object of a sentence. Sometimes this information is necessary to understand the sentence, and sometimes it’s just extra.
Understanding how relative clauses work is an important part of English grammar. Check out our guide on this topic below.
How do Relative Clauses Work?
Relative clauses connect ideas that could otherwise be separate sentences. For example:
I bought a dress.
I need a dress for a party.
I bought a dress that I need for a party.
Adding the relative clause, “that I need for a party,” to the first sentence allows us to connect the two ideas. The magic word to tie it all together, “that,” is a relative pronoun. To form your own relative clauses, make sure you keep the following in mind.
1. Is the Clause Restrictive or Non-Restrictive?
Does the clause add important information that’s needed for the context of the sentence? If so, it’s a restrictive clause, and it should use the pronoun “that” without commas. For example:
The book that you’re looking for is in the third aisle.
In this case, “the book that you’re looking for” adds relevant context to the sentence.
However, if the clause just adds extra, irrelevant information, then it’s non-restrictive. For a non-restrictive clause, you should use the pronoun “which” and precede it with a comma. For example:
Our beach trip, which is two weeks from now, will be ruined if there’s bad weather.
The main point of this sentence is to say that the trip will be ruined if the weather’s bad. Adding “which is two weeks from now” provides additional information that’s not necessary to understand the sentence.
2. Does the Clause Refer to a Person or Object?
If the subject or object of the sentence is an inanimate thing, then “which” and “that” should be used, like in the earlier examples. However, if you’re talking about a person, you need to use “who”:
The student who volunteers first will get extra credit.
My neighbor, who loves gardening, stopped by today.
If the subject or object is possessive, you’ll use “whose” in all cases. For example:
The person whose car has the best gas mileage should drive.
Cutting the Relative Pronoun
Now that you’ve got the hang of forming relative clauses, let’s look at ways that you can make your sentences more concise. With restrictive clauses, you can cut out the relative pronoun if it refers to the object of the sentence. For example:
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The cat that you found is a stray.
The cat you found is a stray.
In this sentence, the object is the cat, and the subject is “you.”
However, you can’t always delete the pronoun if it refers to the subject of the sentence:
The cat that hides in the rose garden is a stray.
The cat hides in the rose garden is a stray.
In this case, the subject of the sentence is the cat.
You can only delete the relative pronoun for a subject if “-ing” is added to the verb:
The cat hiding in the rose garden is a stray.
For non-restrictive clauses, on the other hand, the pronoun can only be deleted if it refers to the subject of the sentence and if the verb is a “to be” verb:
The house, which is rumored to be haunted, has been abandoned for years.
The house, rumored to be haunted, has been abandoned for years.
Relative clauses allow us to connect ideas and make our writing more interesting. We hope this quick guide has helped you to feel more confident when spotting and using them.
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Frequently Asked Questions
How does subject–verb agreement work in relative clauses?
The verb in the relative clause should agree with the subject of the sentence, or the noun that the relative clause is talking about:
People that do volunteer work are generous.
How do you form a relative clause?
A relative clause has a relative pronoun, a verb, and any other elements needed for the context, such as the object of the verb.