Relatively Speaking: Sentence Combining Using Relative Clauses

Contributor: Allison Crews. Lesson ID: 13720

Having a strong ability to combine sentences strengthens your writing and reading abilities. In this lesson, you'll learn how to combine sentences using relative clauses.


Grammar, Writing

English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Watch Relative Pronouns Song - Learn Grammar - Learning Upgrade Add for a brief introduction to the concepts in this lesson:

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Then, read on to learn how to use relative clauses to combine sentences!

Sentence combining is a powerful approach to grammar that helps you learn how parts of sentences are used to create meaning.

Relative clauses are one of those components that can help you to make sophisticated, meaningful sentences.

Relative Clauses

A relative clause is one type of dependent clause, meaning, it has a subject and verb, but it cannot stand alone as a complete sentence.

You might see relative clauses referred to as adjective clauses because the whole clause serves to modify a noun.

Relative clauses are always introduced by a relative pronoun.

The following chart shows how each functions in a sentence:

  Pronoun Represents Uses
  • who
  • people
  • substitutes subject nouns or pronouns (he, she, we, they)
  • whom
  • people
  • substitutes object nouns or pronouns (him, her, us, them)
  • whose
  • people or things
  • substitutes possessive nouns or pronouns (his, hers, ours, theirs)
  • that
  • people or things
  • can be used for either subject or object
  • can only be used in defining relative clauses
  • which
  • things
  • can be used for either subject or object
  • can be used in non-defining relative clauses
  • can also be used in defining clauses


Take a look at an example of each of these pronouns in use:

I like the librarian who helped me.

The man's cousin, to whom he was indebted, had been very lenient.

The student whose backpack was left in the cafeteria returned after school.

Laika the dog was the first animal that made an orbital space flight around the Earth.

Alfalfa sprouts, which I happen to love, are one of our less popular sandwich toppings.

In each of the preceding examples, the relative pronoun is bold, and the relative clause is italicized.

Each clause operates as a whole to modify a noun. The noun that a pronoun replaces or stands in place of is called its antecedent.

  • For each of the examples above, can you identify the antecedent?

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Relative clauses can be defining or non-defining depending on what they modify.

Defining Relative Clauses

Defining (or restrictive) relative clauses convey necessary information in order to fully identify the noun it modifies.

If a sentence simply said, I like the song, it would be unclear to the reader what is being discussed.

  • What song?

But if a relative clause is added, the sentence becomes clearer: I like the song that is playing on the radio.

A defining relative clause can function as a subject or an object. If the noun being modified is an object, the relative pronoun can be dropped.

Example: I love the car (that) you bought.

In this case, the noun being modified (car) is the object in the sentence. Therefore, it is not necessary to say that you bought; you could simply say I love the car you bought.

Non-defining Relative Clauses

Non-defining relative clauses add extra information that is interesting or informative, but not necessary for overall understanding of the sentence.

Example: I bought a jar of rosemary yesterday, which is my favorite herb.

It isn't necessary to know that the speaker loves rosemary to understand the necessary information in the sentence.

working man

Check Your Understanding

Take a look at these two sentences and determine which contains the relative clause that is defining and which is non-defining.

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In the first sentence, it isn't necessary to know that the shoes were made in Indonesia to understand that they have a buckle instead of laces. It isn't necessary information, just additional information. Therefore, it contains a non-defining relative clause.

In the second, it is necessary to know that it is the specific employees who make our customers feel valued who will be successful at that company. Not all employees will do well, and the relative clause gives the information needed to understand which employees are being referenced.


  • Ready to practice working with relative clauses?

Click through to the Got It? section.

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