When is a relative pronoun NOT a relative pronoun?

Grammar quirks

When is a relative pronoun NOT a relative pronoun?

Some materials say 'Use who for people, which for things and where for people in relative clauses'. So why can't you say 'Birmingham where is beautiful'? If you're a trainee or new teacher and not sure about this area of grammar, this video takes you through how defining relative clauses work, and gives a great activity for practising them, too.


Relative clauses - hmm - it’s one of those areas for learners (and teachers!) that’s a bit of a challenge. The meaning isn’t so hard, it’s basically just adding some extra information about a noun, but the form can be very tricky and I’ve often seen in ELT materials something like this:

'Use who for people, which for things, and where for places'.

Ok so...
The woman who is interesting.
The house which is tiny.
Birmingham where is beautiful.

Hmmmm… why doesn’t that work? I’m Jo Gakonga from ELT-Training and this is another video for my Grammar Quirks series.

Let’s have a quick review of the rules of defining relative clauses in case you’re feeling confused.

So, a defining relative clause looks something like this...
She’s the woman who likes cats.

This is one sentence with two clauses – she’s the woman and the woman likes cats. It’s a defining relative clause because the first clause She’s the woman -doesn’t make sense without the extra information afterwards. She’s the woman… which woman? The woman who likes cats – oh THAT woman.

You can see that the 'who' takes the place of the noun in the second clause, so it’s a relative pronoun. So far so good.

Let’s move on a bit… If we’re talking about a thing we use which
The shop which sells the best fruit is the one on the high street.

The shop is on the high street. The shop sells fruit.

Then we have the ‘that rule’ - In these kinds of sentences, where the information is essential, we can substitute that for who or which – it’s obviously a bit more informal and common in speech...
She’s the woman that likes cats.
The shop that sells the best fruit is the one on the high street.

And just to make things a bit more complicated still, relative pronouns can take the place of the object in a clause, too...
This is the house. Jack built the house
This is the house that Jack built.

In this case, you can see that the relative pronoun replaces the object, house, not the subject, Jack. If this is the case, we can just miss out the relative pronoun altogether...
This is the house Jack built.

So there are different options:
This is the house which Jack built ... that Jack built... or just, Jack built.
This is the woman who Jack loves, that Jack loves, or just, Jack loves.

This is the woman who/ that loves cats (we can’t miss the pronoun out because it’s the subject of this clause)

So what about the original question? Why can’t I say...
Birmingham where is beautiful?

We can use ‘where’ and ‘when’ in these clauses but the issue is that they are relative adverbs so they can’t be the subject of the second clause. Birmingham is the place where I grew up – yes (Birmingham is the place – I grew up in Birmingham – I'm the subject that’s being replaced).

Birmingham is the place where is beautiful – No. Which is beautiful… because where can’t be the subject.

Phew – I told you it was all a bit complicated! The rules are slightly different for non-defining relative clauses where the information isn’t essential to the meaning, but let’s leave those on one side for now.

If you want a great little activity requiring no preparation that does just that for defining relative clauses, this is one that I’ve used many times over the years. But the original idea came from Penny Ur’s Grammar Practice book which, if you don’t know it, is still a fantastic resource over 30 years after it was first published.

You need two lists of 10 nouns. Make it a mixture of places, objects, people, times - it works best if these are quite specific, but make sure that the words are within the vocabulary range of your learners.

Here’s an example:

List 1

1. Big Ben
2. Sydney, Australia
3. A silver fork
4. Matches
5. Childhood
6. An armchair
7. Your next door neighbour
8. An electric cooker
9. A bicycle
10. The Prime Minister

List 2

1. etc

Give one list to half of the class and the other list to the other half. Then give them some sentence stems:
This is a person…/ thing/ place/ time

Then get them to work in pairs or small groups or in break out rooms with someone who has the same list and write ON A DIFFERENT PAPER or screen, definitions of these things without using the word.

This is the thing that you really want to sit in after you’ve been walking around all day.

Tell them there are two rules – it should be possible to guess (but not too easy) and in the 10 definitions they have to include a range of the different defining relative clauses – how many you ask for will depend on the level, obviously, but you could say that they have to include who/ which/ that/ when/ where/ and an example where the relative pronoun is missed out.

Let them work together and write 10 definitions -remember that this must not include the NAME OF THE THING THEY’RE DESCRIBING. You monitor, help, correct errors etc.

Now they swap the definitions they’ve written - if they had list A they get the definitions for list B an vice versa. Again in pairs, give them some time to try to guess what the nouns are from the definitions.

To round it off, you can give the other list out so that they can check and elicit the most interesting or imaginative definitions.

Penny Ur’s example is: This is a triangle that swims (a fish)

It’s a great activity and it gives a meaningful and creative reason to practice what can otherwise be a fairly dull topic. I hope that your learners enjoy it.

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