What are defining and non-defining relative clauses? Why do we need them and how do we use them? You’ll find out in this podcast.
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Defining and non-defining relative clauses
Relative clauses* can join two or more sentences, or give more information about something or someone.
They are not the main clause in a sentence, but a different, additional clause.
*(A clause is part of a sentence with a subject and a verb.)
They can be in the middle or at the end of a sentence.
Defining relative clauses – contain information that is essential to the sentence to define who or what we’re talking about.
Ex. The girl who/that works at the petrol station has just had a baby.
I’ve found an app for my phone which/that makes my tea in the morning.
In both examples, the relative clause identifies/defines which thing or person is being talked about. If we omit the defining relative clause, we don’t define who or what we’re talking about.
Without the relative clause:
The girl has just had a baby. (We don’t know who the girl is. It could be any girl.)
I’ve found an app for my phone. (What app? There are thousands of apps.)
NOTE: No commas
We can use ‘that’ to replace ‘who’ (people) and ‘which’ (things), especially in spoken English.
He loves the chocolate (which/that) I bought. (We DON’T NEED the relative pronoun if it is the OBJECT of the verb in the relative clause.)
(the chocolate is the object)
That’s the girl who/that works at the petrol station. (We NEED the relative pronoun because it is the SUBJECT of the verb in the relative clause.)
Non-defining relative clauses – contain EXTRA information that is not needed to define the person or thing.
Ex. My sister’s new house, which is much smaller than her old one, is in the same town.
Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born in Corsica, was a powerful leader.
Without the non-defining relative clause, we still know exactly who/what we’re talking about:
My sister’s new house is in the same town. (We’re talking about my sister’s new house.)
Napoleon Bonaparte was a powerful leader. (We’re talking about Napoleon Bonaparte.)
NOTE: Put commas before the non-defining relative clause and after if it’s in the middle of a sentence.
‘That’ isn’t used to replace who or which.
You can’t remove relative pronouns from non-defining relative clauses, whether they’re subjects or objects.
Ex. Her English teacher, who everyone really likes, has started a podcast.
(Who – object – is obligatory)
Non-defining relative clauses are more common in written and formal English.
Defining or non-defining?
My eldest brother, who lives in Canada, is divorced. (It must be non-defining as you can only have one eldest brother.)
My brother who lives in Canada is divorced. But my brother who lives in France is married. (I have two brothers, so the defining relative clauses are necessary to identify/define which brother I’m talking about.)
My sister(,) who is married(,) is very slim. (It could be either depending on whether I have more than one sister.)
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