Defining and non-defining relative clauses
There are three types of relative clauses in the English language - the defining, non-defining and connective.
1. The defining relative clauses with who, which, that
These relative clauses specify a noun or pronoun in the main clause and are necessary if we want to understand the meaning of a sentence.
- I saw the girl who was outside our house.
- They wanted the picture that cost two pounds.
If we omit them, it is not clear what girl or picture we are talking about. They follow after the pronouns who, which, that, whose and whom. We do not write them with commas.
- Use of the relative pronouns
- The man who called you has just arrived.
- This is the book which I wanted.
- Are you the
- Can you see the tree that has no leaves?
That is less formal than who or which.
---Who vs whom
The man whom I met yesterday ...
- This is the
Whom is very formal. In spoken English who or that are much more common.
The man who I met ... The man that I met ...
This is the girl who I saw ... This is the girl that I saw ...
We can also leave out the pronoun. It is the most usual form.
The man I met ... This is the girl I met ...
If the subject in the main clause is different from the subject in the defining relative clause, we normally leave out the pronoun.
- The student you saw in Oxford is my neighbour. (the subjects are the student and you)
- The bike she borrowed belongs to me. (the subjects are the bike and she)
If the subjects in both parts of a sentence are the same, we cannot omit the pronoun, because it becomes the subject of the clause.
- The driver who took you to school is from York.
- The pen that is on the desk is new.
There is only one subject in each sentence - the driver and the pen.
If we leave out the subject, it will not be clear what we mean.
- The driver took you to school is from York. (
- It is a story about a boy whose parents got divorced.
- The river whose bridge is in front of us is called the Cam.
Relative pronouns with prepositions
We use the pronouns with prepositions as follows.
- The man I got it from .....
- The man who/that I got it from .....
- The man from whom I got it .....
The last sentence is not very common in spoken English as it is quite formal.
2. The non-defining relative clauses with who, which, whom, whose
They only describe a preceding noun or pronoun (add some information about them), but do not specify them. They must be written with commas.
- My father, who is 65 now, still works.
- His car, which cost nearly 20,000 pounds, is broken.
If we leave them out (My father still works. His car is broken.), the sentences remain grammatically correct and we know what father or car we are talking about. The only effect is that there is less information in the sentences.
- I gave it to Peter, who is my close friend.
- Ann, whom I admire, is not right in this case.
- Their garden, which is near here, looks beautiful.
- Pam, whose children go to school, is not so busy.
Written English: My father, who is 65 now, still works.
Spoken English: My father is 65 now and still works.
Written English: Their garden, which is near here, looks beautiful.
Spoken English: Their garden is near here. It looks beautiful.
In informal English we use who instead of whom.
Formal: Sam, whom I know quite well, would be a good husband.
Informal: Sam, who I know quite well, would be a good husband.
3. The connective clauses with who, whom, whose, which
These relative clauses do not specify or describe the preceding nouns or pronouns, but only develop the story.
- I gave the letter to James, who sent it to London.
- She passed me the salt, which fell on the floor.
Their function is different, but the rules are the same as with the non-defining clauses. We make them with the pronouns who, whom, whose, which and write them with commas.
We cannot write the defining clauses with commas, because they change the meaning of a sentence. Compare the following sentences.
- The passengers who fastened their seatbelts survived. (Which passengers survived? Only the pasengers wearing the seatbelts.)
- The passengers, who fastened their seatbelts, survived. (Because all the passengers were wearing their seatbelts, they survived.)
In spoken English we make pauses in sentences instead of commas.