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IELTS grammar study guide: relative clauses

Published on March 25, 2019

Grammar is one of the four categories that you’ll be assessed on in the Speaking and Writing sections of the IELTS test. When assessing your use of grammar, examiners will not only focus on whether your language has errors or not, but they’ll also pay close attention to your grammatical range. In other words, they want to know if you can use a variety of simple and complex grammatical structures. Given the importance of using a range of grammatical structures, we have designed an IELTS grammar study guide to help you explore a variety of complex grammar structures that you can use on your test day. Today, we’ll begin this series with a look at relative clauses.

Understanding clauses

In grammar, a clause is a group of words that includes at least a subject and a verb. There are two types of clauses: independent clauses and dependent clauses. An independent clause can be a simple sentence by itself (e.g. I live in Toronto.). A dependent clause also contains a subject and a verb, but cannot stand alone as it does not express a complete thought (e.g. where I live).

A look at relative clauses

Relative clauses are dependent clauses that add extra information to a sentence (e.g. Our neighbor, who lives across the street from us, walks our dog while we’re at work.), and they’re usually introduced by relative pronouns. The relative pronoun that we use depends on what we’re referring to:

  • who, people and sometimes animals
  • which, animals and things
  • that, people, animals and things (informal)
  • whose, possessive meaning (for people and animals usually, or for things in formal situations)
  • whom, people in formal conversations or in writing; often following a preposition
  • where, places
  • when, times
  • why, reasons

Note: Relative pronouns highlighted in bold can only be used with defining relative clauses.

Defining relative clauses vs. non-defining relative clauses

Relative clauses can be defining or non-defining. Defining relative clauses are used to add essential information which is needed to understand who or what is being referred to. The sentence would have a different meaning without the defining relative clause. To better illustrate this point, take a look at the defining relative clauses in the sentences below. In the examples, the person/thing being referred to is underlined, and the relative clause is in bold:

  • The Truman Show is a movie about a man whose life is a fake one .
  • There are many things that you can do to stay fit .
  • That’s the café where I met my husband .

Note that when the relative clause is the object of the verb, we may choose to leave out the relative pronoun:

  • Those were some of the examples (that) the lecturer gave.
  • She was the person (who/that) I trusted the most.
  • Sunday is the only day of the week (when) I can truly relax.

Non-defining relative clauses are also used to provide additional information about a person or thing, but this information is not essential to understand who or what is being referred to. Below are some examples of non-defining relative clauses:

  • The essay on global warming, which I found quite interesting to write, was published by a local magazine.
  • My grandmother, who is now 90 years old, is a very healthy and active person.
  • The late 1960s, when the music festival Woodstock was held, was a very exciting time in popular culture.

You may have noticed that, in writing, we use commas before and after a non-defining relative clause. In speaking, we generally pause at the beginning and end of the clause.

Improving your grammar

If you feel like you need more practice to be able to use relative clauses confidently on your IELTS, that’s perfectly normal. Take every opportunity available to practice and improve your use of relative clauses while preparing for your test: complete grammar exercises (either from grammar books or online), read English texts while paying attention to how sentences are structured, and use relative clauses when communicating in English with family or friends.

Keep checking our blog for our next grammar post on the passive voice.