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Defining and Non-Defining Relative Clauses

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Use relative clauses to provide extra information. This information can either define something (defining clause), or provide unnecessary, but interesting, added information (non-defining clause).

Relative clauses can be introduced by:

  • a relative pronoun: who (whom), which, that, whose
  • no relative pronoun
  • where, why and when instead of a relative pronoun

You need to consider the following when deciding which relative pronoun to use:

  • Is the subject or object or possessive of a relative clause?
  • Does it refers to a person or an object?
  • Is the relative clause a defining or non-defining relative clause?

NOTE: Relative clauses are often used in both spoken and written English. There is a tendency to use non-defining relative clauses mostly in written, rather than in spoken, English.

Use relative clauses to provide extra information. This information can either define something (defining clause), or provide unnecessary, but interesting, added information (non-defining clause).

Relative clauses can be introduced by:

  • a relative pronoun: who (whom), which, that, whose
  • no relative pronoun
  • where, why and when instead of a relative pronoun

You need to consider the following when deciding which relative pronoun to use:

  • Is the subject or object or possessive of a relative clause?
  • Does it refer to a person or an object?
  • Is the relative clause a defining or non-defining relative clause?

NOTE: Relative clauses are often used in both spoken and written English. There is a tendency to use non-defining relative clauses mostly in written, rather than in spoken, English.

Deciding Whether A Clause Is Defining Or Non-Defining

Defining Relative Clauses

The information provided in a defining relative clause is crucial in understanding the meaning of the sentence.

Example: The woman who lives in apartment No. 34 has been arrested.
The document that I need has 'important' written at the top.

The purpose of a defining relative clause is to clearly define who or what we are talking about. Without this information, it would be difficult to know who or what is meant.

Example: The house is being renovated.

In this case it is not necessarily clear which house is being renovated.

Non-defining Relative Clauses

Non-defining relative clauses provide interesting additional information which is not essential to understanding the meaning of the sentence.

Example: Mrs. Jackson, who is very intelligent, lives on the corner.

Correct punctuation is essential in non-defining relative clauses. If the non-defining relative clause occurs in the middle of a sentence, a comma is put before the relative pronoun and at the end of the clause. If the non-defining relative clause occurs at the end of a sentence, a comma is put before the relative pronoun.

NOTE: In defining relative clauses there are no commas.

Relative Pronouns Used As The Subject of Defining Relative Clauses

Example: Children who (that) play with fire are in great danger of harm.
The man who bought all the books by Hemingway has died.

Generally, who and which are more usual in written English whereas that is more usual in speech when referring to things.

Relative Pronouns Used As The Object of Defining Relative Clauses

Example: That's the boy (ø , that, who, whom) I invited to the party.
There's the house (ø, that, which) I'd like to buy.

Relative Pronouns Used As A Possessive In A Defining Relative Clauses

Example: He's the man whose car was stolen last week.
They were sure to visit the town whose location (OR the location of which) was little known.

NOTE: It is preferable to use that (not which) after the following words: all, any(thing), every (thing), few, little, many, much, no(thing), none, some(thing), and after superlatives. When using the pronoun to refer to the object, that can be omitted.

Example: It was everything (that) he had ever wanted.
There were only a few (that) really interested him.

Relative Pronouns Used As The Subject of Non-Defining Relative Clauses

Example: Frank Zappa, who was one of the most creative artists in rock 'n roll, came from California.
Olympia, whose name is taken from the Greek, is the capitol of Washington State.

Relative Pronouns Used As The Object of Non-Defining Relative Clauses

Example: Frank invited Janet, who (whom) he had met in Japan, to the party.
Peter brought his favorite antique book, which he had found at a flee market, to show his friends.

NOTE That can never be used in non-defining clauses.

Relative Pronouns Used As A Possessive In Non-Defining Relative Clauses

Example: The singer, whose most recent recording has had much success, signing autographs.
The artist, whose name he could not remember, was one of the best he had ever seen.

NOTES

In non-defining relative clauses, which can be used to refer to an entire clause.

Example: He came for the weekend wearing only some shorts and a t-shirt, which was a stupid thing to do.

After numbers and words like many, most, neither, and some, we use of before whom and which in non-defining relative clauses. Example: Many of those people, most of whom enjoyed their experience, spent at least a year abroad. Dozens of people had been invited, most of whom I knew.

The Use Of Where, Why And When -Relative Clauses and Preposition Use

Where, referring to a place, why, referring to a reason, and when, referring to a time, can be used instead of a relative pronoun after a noun.

In defining relative clauses why and when, unlike where can be omitted.

Example: I'd like to know the reason (why) he decided not to come.
February is the month (when) many of my colleagues take skiing holidays.

BUT! She always had wanted to go to a place where she could speak her native tongue.

When, where and why are not omitted in non-defining relative clauses.

Example: I come from the Seattle area, where many successful companies such as Microsoft and Boeing are located, and I often go home during the summer.
He likes shopping between one and three, when most people are at home, because of the relative calm.

NOTES:

When speaking, we often omit the relative pronoun.

Whom is formal and most often used when writing.

Relative clauses and prepositions

In formal English prepositions can come before the relative pronoun. However, it much more common to place prepositions at the end of the relative clause, especially in informal spoken English.

Example: John Robbins, whom I spoke to by telephone, instructed me to buy 200 shares of WAKO. Formal
The Ritz, which was stayed at in New York, was extremely expensive.

Defining Relative Clauses

Example: The banker to whom I gave my check was quite friendly. - formal
The woman I talked to was very pleasant indeed. - informal
The book which I received for my birthday was excellent. - formal
The car he drove was really fast. - informal

Non-Defining Relative Clauses

Example: The bank manager, to whom he addressed his complaints, was very unhelpful. - formal.
The local branch manager, who I talked to about my problems, was very helpful. - informal

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