Relative Clauses: Who, That, Which, etc.

“The cat that climbed the tree was gray with a spot on its nose.” In this sentence, “that climbed the tree” acts as a relative clause, giving you more information about the subject (the cat). Relative clauses are frequently used in English writing and are an important descriptive tool. However, punctuating these clauses correctly depends on the role they play in the sentence overall, which can be a bit tricky. Read on to find out how to master the relative clause!

What is a relative clause?

Relative clauses are a special form of dependent clause that begin with either a relative pronoun (who, whom, whose, that, or which) or a relative adverb (when, where, or why). You can identify relative clauses easily by remembering that they always begin with one of these key words.

The clause itself acts as an adjective phrase, describing the noun or noun phrase it modifies. In other words, a relative clause will describe the noun, telling you which one or what kind it is.

The balloon that floated away was pearl red against a bright blue sky.

In this example, look for the phrase that tells you which balloon the author is talking about. Which balloon? The one that floated away.

Clauses: Noun + Verb

The relative clause above begins with the relative pronoun “that”, according to our rule. Also, in order to be a proper clause, it has to include both a noun and a verb. The pronoun “that” is serving as the noun and the verb is “floated”. Some relative clauses will include a relative pronoun and a noun within the clause, and some will use the relative pronoun itself as the noun.

The girl that he didn’t know quietly watched it fly away.

Which girl? The one he didn’t know. This time, the relative clause includes a relative pronoun as well as a noun (he) and verb (did know). Both this and the previous example are grammatically acceptable clauses.

So about the punctuation…?

Relative clauses will sometimes be offset with commas and sometimes written directly after the noun they modify (without commas). What determines this?

The trick is to figure out whether the clause is restrictive or non-restrictive.

What does that mean?? A restrictive clause is one that gives you essential information. Without it, the meaning of the sentence would change and you would not be able to tell “which one” or “what type” any more — the questions we initially said a relative clause should answer.

On the other hand, if the noun is already specific, and you would still know exactly which one or what type it is, then the relative clause is unimportant. If removing the relative clause does not change the meaning of the sentence, then it’s non-essential and non-restrictive.

Restrictive Relative Clauses

The park where Joey met Lauren was very scenic.

If you removed the relative clause “where Joey met Lauren”, would you still know which specific park was being talked about?

The park was very scenic.

Which park? No idea. The relative clause had been restricting the meaning of the noun “park” before by limiting it to a specific one, but now it has been removed.

The meaning of this sentence is not the same, since now we have no way to tell which park the author is talking about. As a result, you can tell the relative clause is restrictive. Restrictive relative clauses are not offset by commas. Just write them directly after the noun they modify (here, that’s “park”).

Non-Restrictive Relative Clauses

However, notice what happens if we use a specific proper noun in the first place:

Kitanomaru Park, where Joey met Lauren, was very scenic.

Now that we know the name of the park, does it matter if we remove the relative clause?

Kitanomaru Park was very scenic.

Which park? Kitanomaru. Since we can still tell exactly which park the author is talking about, the relative clause becomes extra information: non-restrictive. In other words, the relative clause does not restrict the identity of the noun (the park) because it was already specified. To indicate that the relative clause is less important extra info, place commas on both sides of it.

Note: the relative pronouns “that” and “which” can almost be used interchangeably in some cases, but “that” is usually used with restrictive clauses while “which” is used with non-restrictive clauses. This is why Microsoft Word’s grammar check will underline any use of “which” that is not preceded by a comma (it expects “which” to indicate a non-restrictive clause, whether or not that is the case).

Let’s Practice!

Identify the relative clauses below and decide whether they are restrictive (R) or non-restrictive (NR). Commas have been left out so as not to give it away. Check your answers at the end of the page!

  1. The time when we were together became a great memory.
  2. The elephant Kokkiri whom I saw the other day knows how to paint.
  3. My neighbor’s kid who often plays outside is on the wild side.
  4. The river that is near my house is so pretty in the evening.
  5. The traveler whose bag went missing became really angry.
  6. There is a shortcut which only I know.
  7. She hesitantly explained the reason why she didn’t want to go.
  8. Bergfield Park which is a few blocks from my house is a nice place to walk.
  9. Can you toss me the big blue ball that’s over there?
  10. That time five years ago when we were in school was really stressful.

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Answers:

  1. The time [when we were together] became a great memory. (R)
  2. The elephant Kokkiri, [whom I saw the other day], knows how to paint. (NR)
  3. My neighbor’s kid, [who often plays outside], is on the wild side. (NR)
  4. The river [that is near my house] is so pretty in the evening. (R)
  5. The traveler [whose bag went missing] became really angry. (R)
  6. There is a shortcut [which only I know]. (R)
  7. She hesitantly explained the reason [why she didn’t want to go]. (R)
  8. Bergfield Park, [which is a few blocks from my house], is a nice place to walk. (NR)
  9. Can you toss me the big blue ball [that’s over there]? (R)
  10. That time five years ago, [when we were in school], was really stressful. (NR)

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