Defining-vs.-non-defining-relative-clauses-abaenglish

Relative Clauses in English

Relative clauses in English have the function, as is the case in other languages, of adding relatively important information about the subject or object of the sentence. They are usually placed immediately after the noun to which they refer and are introduced by a relative pronoun or a relative adverb.

In English, there are two types of relative clauses: the relative restrictive clause and the relative nonrestrictive (or incidental) clause. Let’s look at their differences together.

Restrictive Relative Clauses

Restrictive relative clauses provide indispensable information to identify the subject or the object of a sentence. Without this clause, the sentence completely changes its meaning.

The restrictive clause comes immediately after the subject or object of the sentence. It is never separated from the rest of the elements by punctuation. It is usually introduced by a relative pronoun (who, that, which, whose, and whom).

The relative pronouns that introduce the restrictive clauses are as follows:

  • Relative clause of the subject

Person: who, that
Thing: which, that

The man who is talking to Anne is my math teacher.

The book which was published last year would be perfect for your exam.

  • Relative clause of the object

Person: who, whom, that
Thing: which, that

The girl who you met this morning is my cousin.

The book which I am reading is absolutely wonderful.

  • Possessive relative clause

whose

I have a friend whose dog won a prize in a competition.

When the subject of the relative clause is the object of the sentence, the relative pronoun may be omitted in spoken English.

She is the girl he was talking about.

This is the skirt I bought last week.

In informal English, we tend to prefer the relative pronoun that.

I am going to deliver the talk that I have prepared for the occasion.

This is the flat that I would like to buy.

Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses

Non-restrictive relative clauses provide additional information about the subject or object of the sentence that is not essential to identify them and that does not change the meaning of the sentence. It comes immediately after the word to which it refers and is always secondary, that is, separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.

The relative pronouns that introduce nonrestrictive relative clauses are as follows:

  • Relative clause of the subject

Person: who
Thing: which

Mary, who was my classmate, graduated last year.

  • Relative clause of the object

Person: who, whom
Thing: which

Doctor Smith, who I consider to be a very professional person, is retired now.

  • Possessive relative clause

whose

Judy, whose children are still going to school, is a young and dynamic lady.

Differences Between Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses

Unlike the restrictive clause, in the nonrestrictive clause, the relative pronoun must always be expressed. Also, in the nonrestrictive clause, it is not possible to use the relative pronoun that.

But the most obvious difference is in the meaning. In fact, while they can sometimes look very similar, the meaning changes. In this case, the only way to identify them is through the absence or presence of commas. Remember: restrictive relative clauses never have commas while nonrestrictive clauses are always secondary.

Restrictive Nonrestrictive
Dario’s sister who works at the GP is named Gloria. Dario’s sister, who works at the GP, is named Gloria.
Dario has more than one sister. The relative clause is restrictive because it is essential to understand which sister is being talked about. Dario only has one sister. The relative clause is not restrictive since it is not essential to understand which sister is being talked about.

In general, relative clauses in English are much simpler than they seem at the beginning. If you think it is important to learn a language correctly and not to just make yourself understood, you are not the only one. ABA English currently has more than 17 million students who have chosen to improve their English through our natural and effective method. We offer you 144 free video classes and the same number of short films to help you learn English quickly and effortlessly. What are you waiting for?

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