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Do you know how to write a complex sentence? Use a relative clause

By 22 September 2018Language Tips

Write complex sentences with relative clauses

Does the term ‘relative clause’ mean anything to you?

Some of you will have put your hands up. Some of you might be thinking, ‘I’ve heard of that but I can’t remember what it is’ and the rest of you will be thinking, ‘No, I’ve never heard of that’. It’s OK. It’s an example of metalanguage, or words we use to talk about language. Relative clauses are types of clause used in written English to allow more complex sentences to be created.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, if you want your written English to be well-regarded, it needs to include complex sentences as well as simple sentences.

First things first, what’s an example of a relative clause?

Take a look at the two examples of a relative clause below:

Example one Mrs Singh, who was admitted yesterday via ambulance, will be discharged home today.
Example two The wound on Miss Delarue’s leg, that has been treated with sulfasalazine dressings, is healing well.

These two examples are called ‘non-defining relative clauses’ because they add some interesting but non-essential information to the rest of the sentence. To show the information is non-essential, commas are at either end of the clause.

To know if you have put the commas and the information into the sentence correctly, you should be able to read the rest of the sentence with the commas and information removed and it will still make sense. In our examples, it would leave these as the remaining sentences:

Example one Mrs Singh will be discharged home today.
Example two The wound on Miss Delarue’s leg is healing well.

There’s another type of relative clause to learn about

There is also a defining relative clause. This type of clause adds essential extra information to a sentence. For this reason, there are no commas to separate the extra information from the rest of the sentence.

Some examples include:

Example one The Occupational Therapist who visited Mr Mahmoud’s home will provide you with their report.
Example two The medication which the patient’s GP had previously prescribed has been changed following surgery.

In both of these examples, the defining clause is underlined and is providing more information about the noun in front of it. The information helps the reader understand this noun more clearly.

In the first example, the defining clause clarifies which OT the writer means. In the second example, the defining clause clarifies which of the patient’s medication is being described.

Relative pronouns

In all these examples you will notice certain important words called relative pronouns: who, which and that.

  • Who can describe people (Mrs Singh, the OT)
  • Which can describe things (the wound, the medication)
  • That can describe both things and people.

So when should you use relative pronouns?

The most effective use of relative clauses are to combine 2 pieces of information into 1 sentence.

The first example I showed you came from 2 sentences:

First sentence Mrs Singh was admitted via ambulance yesterday
Second sentence Mrs Singh will be discharged home today.

By using a relative clause, you can avoid the repetition of Mrs Singh and provide the information more clearly to the reader. Look out for information in case notes which would be repetitive if you wrote it in 2 sentences and combine into 1 with a relative clause.

Finally, a good understanding of relative clauses will make you a better reader as you will be able to pick out when the writer is adding non-essential information to the sentence, separated by commas and when the details need to be read together.

For more information about other grammatical elements such as relative clauses, you can find them on the OET Blog.