Today we’re taking a look at some English grammar that sometimes trips up language learners. In fact, we’ve just used it in that first sentence…can you see it? That’s right – we’re talking about relative pronouns!

We’ll show you what they are, how to use them in defining and non-defining relative clauses, and some common mistakes to watch out for.

By the end of this article, you’ll be using relative pronouns like a pro! Let’s go!


What are relative pronouns?


Relative pronouns are words that join two clauses together to add more information, just like we did by using that in the introduction.

The relative pronoun we choose depends on:

– what we’re talking about (e.g. people/things/places)

– the type of clause we’re going to add (defining/non-defining)

Many relative pronouns start with ‘wh-’: who, which, whose, where, when, and why*.

But, as you know, we have plenty of exceptions in English, and in this case it’s that.

That is only used in defining relative clauses and can mean both ‘who’ and ‘which’.

*Why is also only used in defining relative clauses.

What are relative pronouns | How to use relative pronouns in English | Oxford House Barcelona

How to use relative pronouns


To see how to use relative pronouns, let’s break down our introductory sentence into its two clauses:

Today we’re taking a look at some English grammar.

It sometimes trips up language learners.

We can combine the two clauses with the relative pronouns that or which:

Today we’re taking a look at some English grammar that sometimes trips up language learners.

The second clause has given us information about the noun (‘some English grammar’).

Quick tip:

Psst! Have you noticed that we removed a word when we joined the two clauses together?

…You got it! We removed the subject it from the second clause. That’s because the relative pronoun (that) becomes the subject of the verb confuses, and we don’t need two subjects, so goodbye, it!

Now that we’ve seen the pronouns and how to use them, let’s look at more details of the two types of relative clauses.


Defining vs. Non-Defining Relative Clauses


Relative clauses add extra information about a noun. The way we use relative clauses depends on whether:

– the information we add is vital to understanding the sentence.

– the sentence makes sense without that information.


Defining clauses


Imagine we say, ‘Hey look, that’s the dog!’ Do you know which dog we’re talking about? Not yet because we haven’t defined it.

We need a defining clause to add more information about the noun. This clause doesn’t use commas.

e.g. That’s the dog which bit my sister!

Now do you know more information about the dog? Yes – run!

Here are some more examples of defining relative clauses. When you’re reading them, ask yourself: Which girl? Which cake? Which neighbour? etc.

The bag belongs to the girl who/that left early.

We tried the cake which/that you recommended!

I spoke to the neighbour whose dog jumped into my garden.

She wants to visit the place where you took those photos.

This is the time of year when there are more mosquitoes.

That’s the reason why I’m not going.

In each sentence, notice how the defining clause provides a complete meaning.


Non-defining clauses


Next, imagine we’re angry, and we tell you: ‘The man left without paying!’

‘What?’ you say, ‘do you know his name?’

‘No…’ we reply, sadly. ‘He never told us his name…’

Here we can look at how non-defining clauses add extra information, with commas.

This information can be removed and we can still understand the sentence.

e.g. The man, who never told us his name, left without paying.

If we take away ‘who never told us his name’, we still understand that a man left without paying.

The information between the commas may be useful or interesting, but it isn’t vital.

More examples:

Steve, who’s a local carpenter, helped to build the house.

They went shopping instead of going to the beach, which was unusual.

Your cousin, whose name I’ve forgotten, seemed to enjoy the party.

The restaurant, where many celebrities had eaten, won the prize.

Last year, when I hadn’t started my course yet, I had a lot of free time.

The non-defining clause can disappear and we still understand the sentences, right? Right!


Common mistakes using relative pronouns

How to use relative pronouns in English | Common mistakes using relative pronouns | Oxford House Barcelona

Time for a round-up of everything we’ve looked at!

Summary | How to use relative pronouns in English | Oxford House Barcelona

More grammar resources


Feeling like a pro? Ready to practise your next grammar point? Try one of these!

How to use 6 different English pronouns

How to use articles (a, an, the) in English

4 Different Types Of Modal Verbs

If you’d like more help with your grammar, check out our range of courses. You can sign up online or contact us for more information!

Glossary for Language Learners


Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.

Trip up (pv): to cause you to make a mistake.

In fact (exp): actually.

Watch out for (pv): to be careful to notice someone or something interesting.

Plenty (n): enough or more than enough, a large amount/number.

Break down (pv): divide into smaller parts.

Whether (conj): if (to refer to one or more possibilities).

Make sense (exp): to be clear and easy to understand.

Take away (pv): remove.

Have trouble (exp): have problems or difficulties.


pv = phrasal verb

exp = expression

n = noun

v = verb

conj = conjunction

Improve your English with Oxford House Barcelona

Interested in taking an English course at Oxford House Barcelona? Check the English Courses we can offer you or contact us for more information.

Leave a Reply

Captcha *