The woman who gave me the flowers: how to construct relative clauses.

by Liz Walter​
relative clauses
There are two main types of relative clause. One is for making it clear who or what we are talking about. Teachers call this type ‘defining relative clauses’, and they don’t have commas around them:

The woman who gave me the flowers is my neighbour.

This is the chair that I bought yesterday.

For these relative clauses, we use who for people, which for things, and (especially in speech) that for either people or things.

The other type is for giving extra information. These are called ‘non-defining relative clauses’, and they do have commas:

The woman, who was a friend of mine, gave me some flowers.

The furniture, which was very old, belonged to my father.

For these, we use who for people and which for things. We don’t use ‘that’.

One very common mistake that learners of English make with relative clauses is to put in an extra pronoun when it isn’t needed:

The woman who gave me the flowers she is my neighbour.

Remember, ‘The woman who gave me the flowers’ is the subject of the sentence. You don’t need another subject, so don’t add ‘she’.

In just the same way, if the relative clause is the object, don’t add another object pronoun. Don’t say, for example ‘This is the chair that I bought it yesterday.’ ‘The chair that I bought’ is the object, so don’t add ‘it’.

These are the most important things to know about relative clauses, but the following tips may also be useful. Firstly, the possessive pronoun we use in relative clauses is always whose. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a person or a thing:

She is the child whose mother called me.

The house, whose walls were thick, was cool inside.

Secondly, it is common to miss out the pronoun in defining clauses when the pronoun is the object of the clause. So, for example, you can say:

This is the chair I bought yesterday.

However, if it’s the subject, you have to keep the pronoun:

This is the chair that has the broken leg.

And finally, a word about whom. In very formal English, this pronoun is used when a person is the object of the sentence:

She is the woman whom I saw yesterday.

However, in reality, whom is very rarely used, unless it is to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. For a very formal piece of writing, you might prefer ‘the woman to whom I gave the document’ to ‘the woman (who) I gave the document to’, but frankly, if ending a sentence with a preposition is your worst crime, you’re doing pretty well!

26 thoughts on “The woman who gave me the flowers: how to construct relative clauses.

  1. Pingback: The woman who gave me the flowers: how to construct relative clauses. | più rospi che principi

  2. As a schoolboy, I learned the terms “restrictive clauses” and “non-restrictive clauses,” rather than “definitive” and “non-defintive,” though the rules are exactly the same.

  3. Dessisslava

    I was taught that chairs are not living creatures so they can not have their legs. Is that example correct?

    1. “The man talking to my mother is my teacher”. The ing verb is a whole relative clause where the verb and the relative pronoun have been left out. The shorter a sentence is, the more natural you sound. Just a question os style, formal/informal use.
      I always tell my students to sound natural when speaking.
      If im wrong, please, correct me.

  4. Pingback: Grammar | ELT Infodump

  5. Pingback: All, both, and everyone: How to use pronouns (2) – About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog

  6. Nancy

    Hello Mrs, Walter
    Could please help me
    in this example: ‘Spring is the season which I enjoy the most’. Can I use ‘that’ or ‘when’ in that example.
    Thank you.

    1. Liz Walter

      You can use ‘that’ but not ‘when’ in the sentence you’ve given. You could say ‘Spring is the time when I plant my vegetables.’

  7. Nancy

    Hi, Mrs Walter.
    Could you please tell me Can I omit ‘that’ in these examples: ‘It’s a medical that she wasn’t hurt ‘
    ‘It suddenly hit me that Sara wanted to borrow money’ and please I’m realy counfused about using (that-clause) as the subject I know we use (it pattern) instead but how can I know it’s important to keep ‘that’ or omit it and please Could explain when (that-clause) is the subject of the sentence.

    1. Liz Walter

      You can omit ‘that’ in both those sentences, but they aren’t relative clauses so the rule about the subject isn’t relevant.

  8. Nancy

    Thank you, Mrs Walter. I really appreciate your answer, but could you please tell me when (that-clause) is the subject of sentence?

  9. Nancy

    Hello, Mrs Walter. I would like to know when I use ‘you know’ in relative clauses in an informal way like in these examples: ‘you know the woman who lives in the next door is a doctor’
    ‘you know Mike who lives in the next door speaks five languages fluently’ Is it correct? And please do I have to add a question mark to those examples?

    1. Liz Walter

      ‘You know’ is just a sentence filler when it is used like this. It doesn’t add any meaning, and it’s only used in speech, not writing, so you don’t need a question mark. If you are really asking a question, you would have to say ‘Did you know the woman who lives next door is a doctor?’

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