Relative clauses – defining and non defining

Relative clauses – defining and non defining

Parts of a sentence that identify people, things or add some additional information are called relative clauses.

Compare the sentences below. Which one is better?

a The International English Language Testing System is a globally recognised exam. It was first developed in the early 1960s.
b The International English Language Testing System, which was first developed in the early 1960s, is a globally recognised exam.

Hopefully you choose sentence B, which combines two sentences in a more formal, academic manner using relative clauses.

They often begin with either a question word (who, what, where, which etc) or ‘that’. They can also start with pronouns; e.g. whose).

Relative clauses - defining and non definingExamples of relative clauses:

  • He is the man who lives next door to me.
  • The journalist, whose work involves a huge amount of international travel, is currently in South America.
  • My house, which is in the country, is not very big.
  • Here’s the book that you wanted me to get.

 

Notice how the clause immediately follows the noun it relates to.

The game that they are playing originated from Southern Europe.
NOT: The game originated from Southern Europe that they are playing.

There are two common types of relative clause:

1. Defining relative clauses (also called ‘restricting relative clauses’ or ‘identifying relative clauses’)

2. Non-defining relative clauses (also called ‘non-restricting relative clauses’ or ‘non-identifying relative clauses’)


1. Defining relative clauses

A defining relative clause is one in which the clause is required for the understanding / grammar of the sentence.

Example:

She is the teacher who helped me with my homework.

If we remove the relative clause ‘who helped me with my homework‘, we are left with ‘She is the teacher’ which is not a complete sentence.

With defining relative clauses, we can change the question word for ‘that’:

She is the teacher that helped me with my homework.

 

2. Non-defining relative clauses

A non-defining relative clause is one in which the clause is NOT required for the understanding / grammar of the sentence. A non-defining relative clause adds extra information, but we can remove it and the sentence will still make sense.

Example:

My friend, who comes from Australia, loves surfing.

If we remove the relative clause, we are left with ‘My friend loves surfing.’, This a grammatically complete sentence.

NOTE: In non-defining relative clauses, we CANNOT change the question word for ‘that’.

Example:

My friend, that comes from Australia, loves surfing. We MUST use ‘who’.

In addition to not using ‘that’, non-defining relative clauses differ from defining relative clauses in that they use commas to show that the clause is not essential to the grammar of the sentence. Defining relative clauses do not use commas.

Compare:

She is the teacher that helped me with my homework.

She is the teacher, that helped me with my homework.

My friend, who comes from Australia, loves surfing.

My friend who comes from Australia loves surfing.


 

TEST YOURSELF: Are the following sentences defining or non-defining?

  • The IELTS interviewer that I had for my speaking test was very friendly.

    Show answer This is a defining relative clause

  • The Academic IELTS test, which is used for university entrance, is more difficult than the General Training modules.

    Show answer This is a non-defining relative clause

  • The teaching methods that some schools favour require students to learn new vocabulary every week.

    Show answer This is a defining relative clause

  • Any listening test which has four sections is bound to be difficult.

    Show answer This is a defining relative clause

  • My friend, who is Scottish, is an IELTS examiner.

    Show answer This is a non-defining relative clause

 

TEST YOURSELF #2:   All of the following sentences are incorrect. Can you identify the error?

a.  America which is one of the world’s most developed countries gives millions of dollars in aid to developing nations every year.

  Show answer This sentence needs to have commas – America, which is one of the world’s most developed countries, gives millions of dollars in aid to developing nations every year.
b.  Students communicate with their classmates in English often become considerably more fluent and confident.

  Show answer This needs ‘who’ adding to the sentence – ‘Students who communicate with their classmates in English often become considerably more fluent and confident.’
c.  We should, of course, punish those which break the law.

  Show answer ‘who’ should be used instead of which – ‘We should, of course, punish those which break the law.’
d.  The population is increasing, that is putting strain on both the environment and our supply of natural resources.

  Show answer Because this is a non-defining relative clause, ‘that’ should be changed to ‘which’ – ‘The population is increasing, that is putting strain on both the environment and our supply of natural resources.’

 

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