AEM Academy

Relative Clauses

Relative clauses are an easy way to improve your writing. They allow you to add details after any noun, including after an entire cause. Essentially, relative clauses are big adjectives. Whereas an adjective goes BEFORE a noun, a relative clause goes AFTER the noun or idea it’s related to – that’s why it’s called a relative clause.


Adjective: I have a big dog.

  • The modifier big goes before the noun dog.

Relative clause: I have a dog that’s big.

  • The modifier that’s big goes after the noun dog.


Adjective: I have a stupid boss.

  • The modifier stupid goes before the noun boss.

Relative clause: I have a boss who is stupid.

  • The modifier who is stupid goes after the noun boss.


These examples illustrate the basic concept of adjectives vs relative clauses. However, if the modifying idea (“big/stupid”) consists of a single word, be economical in your writing and just use a single adjective before the noun. Save relative clauses for modifying ideas that need more than one word:

  • I have a dog which is as big as a black bear.
  • I have a boss who understands nearly nothing about how her business works.


Relative clause can relate to a single noun, like “big” or “stupid” in the previous examples, or they can relate to the entire preceding clause:

  • It’s raining, which means we won’t go to the park today.
  • I'm stuck in a traffic jam, which means I'm going to be late.


Relative clauses are great for describing the significance of the preceding idea. They often start with:

  • …, which means…
  • …, which shows…
  • …, which indicates…
  • …, which leads to…
  • …, which causes…
  • …, which results in…

Relative Clauses Type #1: Who, That, Which

The most common type of relative clause starts with a relative pronoun or relative adverb.

Relative pronouns:

  • who
  • whom
  • whom
  • that
  • which
  • whoever
  • whomever
  • whichever
  • whatever

Relative adverbs:

  • where = in which/on which
  • when


Type #1 relative clauses most often start with the relative pronouns who, that, and which. These relative clauses are used to give an important detail about the preceding noun:

  • My friend who lives in Montreal is visiting next weekend.
  • The memory card, which I ordered last month, has finally arrived.

Relative clauses also frequently refer to the entire preceding clause. These often start with which means or which indicates:

  • The patient has a high fever and headache, which means he might have corona virus.
  • …, which might lead to…
  • …, which could result in…

Who or whom?

Whom or who? If in doubt, use "who." Usage of “whom” is declining and this word will probably become obsolete.

In general, though, if the pronoun/noun you’re replacing is a subject noun (i.e. he/she/they), use who.

If the pronoun/noun you’re replacing is an object noun (i.e. him/her/them), use whom.

Who

Simple sentences: Mark will be responsible for marketing. He has a lot of sales experience.

Relative clause: Mark, who has a lot of sales experience, will be responsible for marketing.

Whom

Simple sentences: Jeff will be joining us for lunch. You met him at the party last month.

Relative clause: Jeff, whom you met at the party last month, will be joining us for lunch.


Relative clauses and punctuation: defining vs. non-defining relative clauses

Defining relative clauses

Some relative clauses contain crucial pieces of information that are needed to understand what you’re talking about:

  • The part that I ordered last month has finally arrived.

If you remove “that I ordered last month,” the reader doesn’t know what part you’re talking about:

  • The part has finally arrived.
  • Which part? In this case, it’s called a defining relative clause because you need the information in the relative clause to understand what’s going on.

With a defining relative clause, you can use that or which.

  • The part that I ordered last month has finally arrived.
  • The part which I ordered last month has finally arrived.

DO NOT PUT COMMAS around a defining relative clause.


Non-defining relative clauses

In the example below, you can remove the relative clause and the reader will still know what you’re talking about.

  • The memory card, which I ordered last month, has finally arrived.

“The memory card” is a specific item and “which I ordered last month” is a non-critical detail. In this case, it’s a non-defining relative clause.

  • The memory card has finally arrived.
  • DO NOT USE THAT with a non-defining relative clause:
  • The memory card, that which I ordered last month, has finally arrived.


Compare these sentence pairs:

1a) Non-defining relative clause:    

  • Richie, who sat next to me in grade 9 geography, became a successful businessman.

1b) Defining relative clause:                              

  • The guy who sat next to me on the plane is a famous musician.


2a) Non-defining relative clause:

  • The X501, which we bought last month, has broken down already.

2b) Defining relative clause:              

  • The machine that/which we bought last month has broken down already.

Omitting relative pronouns

If you have a defining relative clause with a subject after the relative pronoun, you can omit the relative pronoun.

This doesn’t work in non-defining relative clauses (the ones that are inside commas).


Example 1:

Simple sentences: You’d lent the file to Larry. The file is on your desk.

Relative clause: The file that you’d lent to Larry is on your desk.

  • That is the relative pronoun and it’s followed by the subject you. You can omit that.

Relative clause: The file you’d lent to Larry is on your desk.

Common mistake:

  • The file that you’d lent it to Larry is on your desk.
  • The file you’d lent it to Larry is on your desk.


Example 2:

Simple sentences: You got the food from that new place? Was the food any good?

Relative clause: Was the food that you got from that new place any good?

Relative clause: Was the food you got from that new place any good?

Common mistake:

  • Was the food that you got it from that new place any good?
  • Was the food you got it from that new place any good?


Example 3:

Simple sentences: Chen gave the USB to me. I can’t find the USB.

Relative clause: I can’t find the USB that Chen gave to me.

Relative clause: I can’t find the USB Chen gave to me.

Common mistake:

  • I can’t find the USB that Chen gave it to me.
  • I can’t find the USB Chen gave it to me.


Compare this pair:

1. We moved into a new place. Our new place has 3 bedrooms.                                

We moved into a new place that has 3 bedrooms.

  • You cannot remove that. If you do, the verb has won’t have a subject.

2. We moved into a new place. She recommended it to us.                                           

We moved into a new place that she recommended to us.

We moved into a new place she recommended to us.

  • Both are ok.

The most powerful sentence structure in English

This is the hardest-working complex sentence template. Salesmen have radically increased their sales simply by using it when talking to customers:

  • “Because this TV is a flatscreen, you can hang it on any wall in your house, which means you can turn any part of your home into an entertainment room.” (Brian Tracy, master sales trainer)

Formula: reason + result + benefit/significance

Bonus: This template contains several sentence structures in one. Notice that this template is for a complex sentence with one independent clause and two dependent clauses (subordinate clause and relative clause). It's a very powerful template but you don't want all of your sentences to be structured in exactly the same way.

1. You can switch the order of the subordinate and independent clauses:

  • X is more important because A, B, and C, which means...

2. You can remove one of the dependent clauses to make two sentences.

  • X is more important because A, B, and C. This means...

3. You can add more dependent clauses.

  • Because of A, B, and C and due to the additional factor of D, X is the better option, which means we can ..., and which also gives us the chance to...

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