How to teach defining relative clauses

Summary: How to present and practise restrictive relative clauses for saying which thing you are talking about, with typical errors and defining relative clauses games

Defining relative clauses like “An ALT is someone who helps a teacher teach foreign languages” and “I don’t know the word in English but it’s a thing that you use to open wine bottles” are vital both for teachers to explain vocabulary and for students to talk their way around words that they can’t think of the English for. They are also useful for describing things that don’t exist in other languages and/ or cultures such as “A maneki neko is a model of a cat which waves to bring in money and good luck”. They are also often what make it difficult to understand long sentences like “I had been there before but I hadn’t seen the building (that) Shakespeare lived in”. 

These essential uses mean that it is well worth presenting defining relative clauses from Elementary or Pre-Intermediate level, long before you are ready to present non-defining relative clauses like “John, who still fancied Jane, really didn’t want to retire”. This article therefore gives ideas for presenting and practising defining relative clauses on their own, with just a little on the contrast with non-defining relative clauses and on teaching higher level learners. There are other articles on this website on teaching non-defining relative clauses and both kinds together.


What students need to know about defining relative clauses

Relative pronouns such as “which” are used to join two things in one sentence that would otherwise need to be two sentences. For example, if we didn’t use “who” in “She is a woman who helps schoolchildren across the road”, it would be the strange pair of sentences “She is a woman. She helps schoolchildren across the road”. As in this example, defining relative clauses contain information that is vital to understand what is being talked about. This means that they usually need to be one sentence in order to make sense. In contrast, non-defining relative clauses like “This is my favourite teddy bear, which you can borrow if you like” only contain extra optional information and so make perfect sense as “This is my favourite teddy bear. You can borrow it if you like”.  

The most common and useful relative pronouns with defining relative clauses are, in approximate order of usefulness:

  • that (“I want to buy a car that doesn’t break down”, “He is the ex-boyfriend that I told you about”)
  • which (“Grime is a type of music which is similar to UK rap”, “This is the door which he kicked down”)
  • who (“She is the only cleaner who is never late”, “He was the teacher who I was most inspired by”)
  • when (“I hate it when he snores”, “Guy Fawkes Night was the time when I fell in love with fire”)
  • where (“A hutch is a place where rabbits live”)
  • whose (“He is the neighbour whose dog barks all night”, “It is the town whose traffic I most hate”)

Forms with prepositions like “in which” (“A hutch is a place in which rabbits live”) also come up often enough that it could be worth planning to present them as a separate category. Although splitting up “which” and the preposition (“A hutch is a place which rabbits live in”) is more common in modern English and so is worth presenting as an option and in comprehension tasks, I tend to encourage or allow “on which”, “since which” etc, as it is easier to use and to understand.

There is also “whom”, but this is quite formal or even pretentious in modern speech, and so is best avoided at the kinds of low levels that might be studying only defining relative clauses. It is fairly common straight after prepositions (“He is a man in whom I have complete trust”), but these can usually be rephrased with “who” and the preposition at the end (“He is a man who I have complete trust in”), and most other examples can be replaced with “that” or “who”.

In many English dialects there is also the “what” in “This is the whiskey what really did me in”. This is far from standard, is considered wrong in writing, and in students is often due to L1 interference. However, the fact that it is quite common in informal English may mean that it is not worth correcting unless you are teaching something like academic writing.

Things that you might want to help students notice about the more common relative pronouns above include:

  • “that” can be used for both things and for people, and so can replace both “which” and “who” in defining relative clauses (although some people consider it more polite to use “who” for people)
  • “that”, “which” and “who” can be followed by either a verb (“I like people who don’t like me” – known as a subject relative clause) or a subject (“I don’t like the wallpaper that she chose” – known as an object relative clause)
  • “when” and “where” are always followed by a subject (“This is the dark lane where he was attacked”)
  • “where” and “preposition + which” can replace each other (“This is the place where I keep my spider collection”, “This is the place in which I keep my spider collection”), and so “where” doesn’t need a preposition
  • “whose” represents possession and so often replaces “my”, “his”, possessive S, etc (as in “He is my neighbour. His dog barks all night” changing to “He is the neighbour whose dog barks all night”)
  • when they are followed by a subject, “that”, “which”, “who” and sometimes “when” can be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning (“He is the ex-boyfriend I told you about”, “This is the door he kicked down”, “He was the teacher I was most inspired by”, “Guy Fawkes Night was the time I fell in love with fire”). These are sometimes called “contact clauses” (though I wouldn’t mention that in class).

Reduced relative clauses like “A man (who was) walking a dog caught the suitcase of money and ran away” and “A bird (who was) last seen in 1934 has been spotted again” are a useful topic for higher levels which will be dealt with in other articles.


Typical student problems with defining relative clauses

The most common error with defining relative clauses is probably repeating the subject or object, as in “This is the menu that it was served at our wedding” X and “We had several problems with the present which our mother had bought it for us” X. If students have this problem, simply tell them that the relative pronoun is the subject or object of the relative clause, and therefore that doesn’t need to be repeated. 

Perhaps the trickiest part of this grammar is the fact that you can remove relative pronouns in examples like “I need a pet (which/ that) I can keep in a box”. Relative pronouns never have to be removed, but relative clauses without relative pronouns are one of the most difficult parts of reading comprehension. Therefore, some practice of putting “that” etc into the right places where they could go in a text are good preparation for more difficult reading texts. This can easily be done without the need to present examples where the relative pronoun can’t be removed like “I need a pet which/ that can live in a box”. However, if students notice that none of these kinds of clauses have the relative pronouns missing, it is simply because there is no subject after the relative pronoun.

At this level I would try to avoid having to explain why “whose”, “where” and usually “when” cannot be taken out of sentences with relative clauses, but it has to do with the different wording needed to make two sentences. For example, in “He is the neighbour dog barks all night when he’s away” X, you have lost the possessive forms in “whose” and in “He is my neighbour. His dog barks all night”.

A smaller issue, but one which is more difficult to avoid mentioning, is prepositions of position in examples like “This is box where I keep my spider”, “This is the box in which I keep my spider”, and “This is the spider which I keep my spider in”. Perhaps the most common student error would be “This is box where I keep my spider in” X. I’m not sure if there is any fundamental reason why this is wrong in English, but you could point out that prepositions are not necessary in questions with “where” (“Where do you keep your spider?” or “What do you keep your spider in?”) or that using both “where” and “in/ on/ at” is unnecessarily repeating the idea of location.


How to present defining relative clauses

If you do as I have suggested above and present defining relative clauses for the first time at low levels, it’s easiest and most useful to do so as revision of recent vocabulary that you have learnt. Get students to work out what words and expressions are being defined in “It’s a thing which you use to keep food cold” and “It is a place where you can buy meat”. If you don’t want to present the difficulties of relative pronouns followed by just a verb, you should make sure that they are all relative pronoun plus subject like these examples. You’ll also need to make sure that there are definitions of places, times, etc as well as things to include different relative pronouns, even if that means adding extra vocabulary which they haven’t covered recently. To add slightly more fun, this can be done with students adding the words that match the definitions to a crossword, searching for them in a word search, or making a word out of the first letters of each of those words. If they are unlikely to be able to remember the vocabulary without extra help, you could give them mixed words to match to the definitions, or one right definition and one or more wrong definitions for each piece of vocabulary. If they’ve been studying similar but different vocabulary such as false friends, they could also match pairs of definitions to “car park/ parking”, etc.

After students check that they have remembered the right words, see if they can then make sentences with relative pronouns to define those words, from what they can remember of the definitions that they just looked at and/ or their own ideas. If they need help, you could give them “It’s a place. You can buy meat there” and maybe the relative pronoun “where”. After comparing their definitions with the original ones, they can make rules about the meanings of relative pronouns, which ones can replace each other, which can take just verb with no subject, etc.

At higher levels, you’ll probably want to start with presenting both defining and non-defining relative clauses, so suitable ideas are given in the article on teaching both kinds together. However, if you want to start with a quick review of defining relative clauses, the vocabulary revision activity would work just as well with the higher-level vocabulary that they have just been learning. With classes from about Pre-Intermediate level, another possibility is to do the same thing with definitions of things which are specific to their country and which they may want to explain in the future like “jamon serrano” or “chapchae”.

Some of the practice activities below such as dominoes may also work at the presentation stage.


How to practise defining relative clauses

Explaining vocabulary with defining relative clauses guessing game

After doing the presentation tasks above, the obvious next step is to get students to define more vocabulary for other students to guess, perhaps choosing what to define from a pack of cards with one recent word or expression on each.


Explaining local culture with defining relative clauses roleplays

Perhaps after the culturally-specific definitions presentation above, students roleplay situations like accompanying a foreign guest to a souvenir shop, local restaurant or festival.


Explaining everything defining relative clauses roleplays

Students roleplay knowing nothing about a subject and therefore needing their partner to explain everything when they visit a doctor, visit a car mechanic, start to work in an office for the first time, etc. To make it more extreme, more imaginative students could pretend that they are an alien or a defrosted caveman and so understand nothing that they see.


Defining relative clauses dominoes

Make definitions of recent vocabulary from the course and split those definitions into two parts, usually splitting before or after the relative pronoun (“A cat is a pet + which you can’t take for a walk”, etc). Make a set of dominoes, with the left-hand side of each domino having the end of one sentence and the right-hand side having the start of a different sentence. (“which you can’t take for a walk./ A fridge is a thing that”). Ask students to work together to put all the dominoes together in a big circle so that all the grammar is right and all of the definitions make sense. They could then deal the cards out and play more like a real game of dominoes with the same cards (although unlike real dominoes there is only one correct match each time).

This could also work at the presentation stage, with students making explanations for the relative pronouns and relative clauses from those examples between playing the two versions of the game.


How British is Your English defining relative clauses practice games

Read out definitions of words and expressions which are different in British and American English such as “A place in your bedroom in which you hang your clothes” for “wardrobe” or “closet”. As they listen to the definitions, students try to write down one word or expression for each definition. They then listen a second time to the definitions but this time with some possible words given as options for each, choosing the one which they would be most likely to use in their own writing and speaking. Go through a third time to tell them which is British and which is American, and see who in class has the most British and most American English. Then give them other pairs of words like “vest/ undershirt” to define for each other in the same way.


Defining relative clauses discuss and agree

Give students opinions phrases which can be completed with different relative clauses depending on how they feel like “The government should do more to control people…” or “There are too many internet news stories which…”. Students discuss possible completions of these sentences, write down only the ones that they both/ all agree on, then share one or two with the class to see what they think.

This can also be done on just the topic of language learning with sentence like “We should listen to recordings…” and “We should avoid grammar which…”.


Defining relative clauses personalised guessing

Say and/ or write up the name of a thing, person, time, place, etc which is important to you, and see if students can say what its connection is to you in a sentence like “It is the only childhood toy which you still have” and “It is the town where your grandparents lived”. They can then do the same in groups.


Defining relative clauses making definitions challenge games

Students compete to write the best definitions for vocabulary from the present and/ or previous classes. Definitions could be judged on being accurate, not also being definitions of different words, being short, and/ or being original.


Missing defining relative clauses

Give students a text which has vital information missing and so has meaningless sentences like “I just broke my favourite tool. It is a tool.” Perhaps after finding places with missing info and maybe thinking of their own ideas for what could be missing, give them the missing parts to put back in the right places.


Defining relative clauses call my bluff

Students read out different definitions for the meaning of a word or expression, and the other students guess which one is correct. This is a very common activity for this grammar point but has several issues. For one, for the game to be fun, the vocabulary would need to be unknown to most or all of the students, but you also need to make sure that it is useful for that class at that time. Call My Bluff works best for things which give some hint of their meaning such as idioms and abbreviations, so is usually better for higher levels, but they would probably be also studying non-defining relative clauses so the game needs to be carefully adapted to include both (as described in the article on the topic on this site). However, Call My Bluff is nice for some very specific situations such as classes who need quite specific information like famous people in the country that they will be visiting, or for low-level ESP students such as pre-experience engineers.


Defining relative clauses definitions error correction

This is a variation on the usual error correction tasks that hopefully is more stimulating and also stops them focusing too much on grammar. Give students a mix of inaccurate definitions with the right grammar (“A sparrow is a black bird which sometimes attacks people’s heads in the park near here”) and accurate definitions with incorrect grammar (“A colleague is someone whose works in the same company” X). After making the right kinds of correction for each one, they could then make up similar mistakes for other groups to correct.

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Written by Alex Case for

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