Relative Clauses

Relative clauses, also known as adjective or attributive clauses, are a type of complex sentence in English grammar.

The two main types are defining and non-defining relative clauses

Relative clause fragments are when the independent clause is missing in your sentence. 

What do relative clauses do?


Relative clauses  describe or provide information about someone or something that has usually already been specified:


I like mixing with people who are well read.

  • WHO refers to 'people'

She ate too much, which led to her putting on a lot of weight.

  • WHICH refers to 'she ate too much'

Relative clauses are also a way in which clauses can be combined so that we do not repeat ourselves:


I bought a new car. The car has a sun roof.

  • I bought a new car, which has a sun roof.

I tried to write the whole essay in one hour. Writing the whole essay in one hour wasn't possible. 

  • I tried to write the whole essay in one hour, which wasn't possible.

How do I recognise relative clauses?


Relative clauses begin with one of these relative pronouns:

  • who
  • that
  • which
  • whose 
  • whom
  • where
  • when 
  • why
  • what

These words though, are not just used for relative clauses, so you can't assume if you see one it is a relative clause. 

It is the sentence position and the context that will tell us whether it is a relative clause or not. 

Where do they appear in a sentence?


Relative clauses follow whatever it is that they are qualifying.

They commonly qualify or give more information about a noun. This is why they are also known as adjective clauses.

An adjective describes or clarifies a noun, and in a similar way, a relative or adjective clause gives more information about or defines a noun.

So in this case they will come directly after the noun:


I bought a new car (noun), which has a sun roof.

  • The further information is that the car has a sun roof. '

I like mixing with people (nounwho are well read.

  • The relatives clause clarifies that it is well read people that the person likes to mix with

If they are qualifying a whole clause, then they come directly after that clause:


I tried to write the whole essay in one hour, which wasn't possible.

  • 'Which' refers to the writing of the essay in one hour, so it comes directly after that whole clause

You'll have noted in the above examples that the relative clause comes after the main clause. 

However, they can also spit up the main clause. This is if they are qualifying a noun which is the subject of the sentence, in which case they are embedded within the main clause: 


The students (subjectwho studied the hardest got the highest scores in the test. 

Canberra (subject), which is the capital of Australia, is a relatively new city.