Relative Clause: A complete study of Formation & Functions

What is a Relative Clause?

A relative clause is a dependent clause that gives the reader more information about another noun in the sentence. For example,

(i) The boy who plays the violin is Amit.

(ii) I have read the book which you wrote.

The above-underlined Clauses are Relative Clause.

Let’s understand it in detail.

The clauses in underlined italics just after the noun phrases ‘the boy’ and ‘the book’ identify them and are called Relative Clause.

The clause ‘who plays the violin’ relates to the Noun Phrase ‘The boy’ by stating his activity. Likewise “Which you wrote” relates to ‘the book’. These “Noun Phrases’ are called antecedents and the clauses which qualify them are called Relative clauses. A relative clause qualifies a noun phrase like an adjective. The relative clauses usually begin with the words such as who, whom, which, that and whose etc. They are called relative pronouns.

Formation of Relative Clause

We usually follow the following patterns and the steps to form relative clauses.

(A) Study the following:

  1. The birds are chirping.
  2. The birds live in the neighbourhood.

Let us see how a Relative Clause is formed.

  1. (a) First identify the identical noun phrase in both sentences i.e, ‘ the birds.’
  2. (b) Then replace the identical noun phrase in the second sentence i.e, ‘the bird’ with a suitable relative pronoun (here which/that)
  3. (c). Move the relative pronoun to the beginning of the relative Clauses if necessary. The birds are chirping which/ that live in the neighbourhood.
  4. (d) Finally, place the Relative Clause immediately after its antecedent. Finally, we get the sentence ‘The birds which live in the neighbourhood are chirping.

How to Form a Relative Clause?

Study the following sentence:

I write with the pen which my father bought.

We get this sentence by combining the following two sentences.

(i) I write with the pen.

(ii) My father bought the pen.

Notice the Noun Phrase ‘the pen’ is present in both the sentences. In other words, there is an identical noun phrase in the two sentences.

Let us now see how a Relative Clause is formed

(A) I write with the pen                 ||           My father bought the pen.

(B) The sick were delighted || Florence Nightingale nurse the sick.

(C).         I like the man                     ||           He has a bald head.

(Note that (i) ‘the man’ and he’ refer to the same person; they are identical in reference. (ii) The relative pronoun who remains in place as it comes in the subject position  of the Relative Clause.)

(B)          The thief escaped in the dark                     ||           he  robbed me.

(Notice from the examples in A, B, C and D that we use relative pronouns who and whom for people and which for things.

(E)          The boy is our monitor ||           I have borrowed his book.

(Notice  above that:

(i) First, ‘his’ is replaced by the possessive relative pronoun ‘whose‘;

(ii) then the noun phrase ‘whose book’ ( and not only the relative pronoun ‘whose’) is brought to the beginning of the Relative Clause’

[We cannot move only the relative pronoun  whose as it is part of a noun phrase; the whole noun phrase has to be moved.]

(iii) finally, the Relative Clause ‘whose book’ I have borrowed is placed next to its antecedent ‘the boy’.)

(F)          The chair  has a broken leg          ||           he is sitting on  the chair.

(in the above example, Relative Clause formation has been done in  3 stages:

Stage 1: One of the identical noun phrases (the chair) has been replaced by the relative pronoun ‘which’.

Stage 2: The relative pronoun which has been brought to the beginning of the Relative Clause.

Stage 3: The whole of the Relative Clause ‘which he is sitting on’ has been placed immediately after its antecedent ‘the chair’.

Note that in stage 2 we can bring the preposition on’ along with ‘which’ to the beginning of the Relative Clause. Then we will get the sentence—

The chair on which he is sitting has a broken leg.

Functions of Relative Clause

Relative clauses are of two kinds:

  1. Defining/ Restrictive/ Identifying Relative clauses.
  2. Non-defining/ Non-restrictive/ Non-identifying Relative clauses.

Now let’s discuss now one by one.

(1) Defining Relative Clauses:


The girl who is wearing a red frock is Ava’s sister.

(a) The Girl is Ava’s sister: MC

(b) Who is wearing a red frock: Identifying Relative clause qualifying the noun phrase “the girl”. It points out/identifies ‘the girl’. The determiner used in the antecedent (noun phrase) is usually the …not my, your etc.


I hate people who waste their time.

(a) I hate people who waste their time.

(b) who waste their time. The relative clause which qualifies the noun phrase “people”. i.e., the relative clause gives some essential information about the people I hate.

These relative clauses which give essential information about a noun or its antecedent are called  Identifying Relative Clauses.

Relative Pronouns Used in Defining Relative Clauses:

Position of Relative Clause:

(A) The children who are playing cricket live in this locality.

(i) The children live in this locality: Main clause (MC).

(ii) Who are playing cricket: Relative clause qualifying the noun phrase “The children’, which is the subject.  

Here the relative pronoun ‘who’ is the subject of the Relative Clause. Its use is obligatory or compulsory. In this case, it can’t be dropped.

(B) I have read the book which/that/0 my father bought.

(i) I have read the book: Main Clause (MC).

(ii) Which/that/0 (zero) my father bought.

In the above sentence, the relative clause qualifies the noun phrase ‘the book’ which is the object and the relative pronoun that/which/ is the object of the relative clause. If the relative pronoun is the object of the relative clause, the use of the relative pronoun is optional. When the relative pronoun is omitted, the clause is called a contact clause or zero relative clause.

E.g. I read the book my father bought.

Here ‘my father bought’ is the contact clause and we have used a zero relative in the sentence.

(C) Study some more examples:

(i) The shopkeeper for whom I was working is a good person.

(ii) The boy with whom I share the house is a college student.

In the above sentences, the relative pronouns (whom) act as the object of the preposition for and with. In such cases, we may drop the relative pronoun and use the preposition at the end of the relative clause. and we can rewrite the above sentences like this.

(i) The shopkeeper I was working for is a good person.

(ii) The boy I share the house with is a college student.

(D) Study further examples:

(i)  It is the best possible explanation that we can give about Socrates.

It is the best possible explanation: MC

That we can give about Socrates: Relative Clause.

(ii) The next/last/only question that drew everybody’s attention is worth discussing.

The next/last/only question is worth discussing: MC

That drew everybody’s attention is worth discussing: Relative Clause

The relative pronoun ‘that’ is usually preferred to ‘which’ or ‘who’ when the antecedent noun phrase is in the superlative degree or it is preceded by words like first, second, next, last etc., or the antecedent noun phrase is an indefinite pronoun like someone, something, anything etc.

2. (a) Non-Defining Relative Clauses:

Look at the following sentences.

(1) Our institution, which works for public welfare, is highly popular.

(i) Here the relative clause ‘which works for public welfare’ is not giving any essential information about the noun institution. The institution has already been identified by the determiner ‘our’. The relative clause is only giving us some extra information. We can easily rewrite the sentence in the following manner without any significant change in meaning.

(ii) Our institution is highly popular and it works for public welfare.

(2) Pramod, who is my classmate, is very honest.

In the above sentences the relative clause is non-defining because the antecedent is a proper noun and a proper noun helps us in identifying the person.

Mark the difference in meaning expressed by the Defining and Non-defining Relative Clauses.



(i) The travellers who knew about the floods took another road.

(ii) The travellers, who knew about the flood, took another road.

The first sentence has a defining relative clause “who knew about the flood’ Here the travellers ‘who knew about the flood’ means that only some travellers knew about the floods. The rest of the travellers didn’t know about the floods. So they didn’t take another road.

But in the second sentence ‘who knew about the flood’ is within two commas. It is a Non-defining Relative Clause.

Here the Non-defining Relative Clause does not restrict the number of travellers to a few but it includes all the travellers. Hence here the example means that all the travellers knew about the floods and they took another road.  


(i) The ball went to Satish, who scored a goal.

(ii)  Satish scored a goal in the last minute, which was fortunate.

In (i) who refers to Satish.  The word doesn’t need further definition.

But in (ii) the relative clause refers to the whole clause that goes before it (i.e. ., Satish scored a goal in the last minute.). it is called a Sentential Relative Clause. Both the relative clauses in (i) and (ii) are No-Defining Relative Clauses.

Rules of Relative Clause

Points to remember:

  1. Non-identifying Relative Clauses don’t take the Relative Pronoun ‘that’ with them.
  2. The relative pronoun can’t be dropped before the Non-identifying Relative Clause.
  3. Anyone, anything, someone, something which expresses indefinite meaning can’t be used as the antecedent of the Non-identifying Relative Clause.
  4. The non-identifying Relative Clause sometimes qualifies the whole main clause (sentential relative clause) but it is not possible in the case of the Identifying Relative Clause.
  5. The Identifying Relative Clause is an essential part of the sentence but the Non-identifying Relative Clause is an additional part of the sentence.
  6. The Non-identifying Relative Clause gives some extra information. It is separated by commas. These clauses refer to the total number or quantify indicated by the antecedent i.e., they cover the whole set whereas the identifying relative clause restricts the number or quantity to a sub-set.

Exercise for Relative Clause


Mark the examples and combine the following sets of sentences using the relative pronoun who.

  • Greengrocer is a person. He/she sells fruit and vegetables.

Ans: A preen grocer is a person who sells fruit and vegetables.

  1. A burglar is a person. He/she breaks into a house to steal things.
  2. A conductor is a person. He/she collects fares on a bus.
  3. A driver is a person. He/she drives a motor car.
  4. An actor is a person. He/she acts on the stage or for films.
  5. A journalist is a person. He/she writes for a newspaper.
  6. A patient is a person. He/she receives treatment from a hospital.
  7. A liar is a person. He/she tells lies.
  8. A plumber is a person. He repairs water pipes.
  9. A widow is a person. She has lost her husband.


Complete the sentences by using who/whom/whose/that.

  1. What’s the name of your friend …………………. Comes to our house?
  2. The boy ………………………. Is playing cricket is Srikant.
  3. An orphan is a child ………………. Parents are dead.
  4. This school is for the children ………………….first language is Oriya.
  5. The man ……………….you met yesterday is a friend of my father’s.
  6. A carpenter is a person ………………………does wood work.


Pick out the Identifying and the Non-identifying Relative Clause.

  1. My friend, who is a good violinist, has won several prizes.
  2. Dr Mohapatra, who has a good name, lives on the next street.
  3. Where is the pen I left on the table?
  4. My teacher, who teaches well, is liked by the students.
  5. Mr Sahoo, who is very hard working, earns a lot of money.
  6. The chairman of the committee, who is impartial, solves all problems cleverly.
  7. Mother Teresa, who faithfully served mankind, is called a saint now.
  8. We love the man who thinks of our welfare.


Read the information. Complete the following sentences using relative pronouns and say if the clauses are identifying or Non-identifying.

1. The man is not known to us. The police arrested him.

A:  The man………………………………………………………………

2. The strike at the factory is over now. It lasted ten days.

A:  The strike at the factory ………………………………………………………………

3. My brother lives in Koraput. He is a doctor.

A:  My brother ………………………………………………………

4. I have found out the book. I was looking for it.

A:  I have found out the book ………………………………………………………………

5. Mira’s grandmother is in hospital. She is sick.

A:  Mira’s grand mother ………………………………………………………………

6. Einstein failed his University Entrance Examination. He discovered the theory of relativity.

A:   Einstein ………………………………………………………………

7. Engineer Chaudhury is on a visit to our village . he got this bridge built.

A:  Engineer Chaudhury ………………………………………………………………

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