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Easy Guide on Omitting English Relative Pronouns “Which, Who, and That”

Omitting English Relative Pronouns

Do you ever think English grammar is just trying to confuse you? If you’re trying to learn English, all the grammatical rules and exceptions can be overwhelming. Heck, even as a native English speaker, I often feel like English was designed specifically to be as complicated as possible! For example, why is it that both of the following sentences are great…

        The dog that Mary is petting is very fluffy.

        The dog Mary is petting is very fluffy.

…but only the first of the following two sentences is acceptable?

        The dog that has brown fur is very fluffy. (This is fine!)

        The dog has brown fur is very fluffy. (This is bad!)

In this article, I’ll be talking to you about sentences in which you can (and can’t) omit relative clauses, such as who, that, or which.

These are called contact clauses, because they consist of two clauses that are right next to each other, and therefore they come into contact with each other. By the end of this article, the sentences above will be confusing no more – and you’ll be forming contact clauses of your own ❗

Relative Clauses and Relative Pronouns

Let’s start with something familiar: the relative clause. In English, we use relative clauses to provide additional information about something without starting an entirely new sentence. For example, rather than saying this…

        John is my friend. He is wearing jeans.

…we can use a relative clause, and instead say this:

        John is my friend who is wearing jeans.

As the above examples show you, relative clauses function as adjectives: they tell you some information about what John is wearing. All relative clauses start with relative pronouns, such as “that”, “which”, “who”. Here’s some more examples of relative clauses with each type of pronoun:

        I drive a car that was made in Germany.

        English is a language which has a very complicated grammar.

        The teacher who taught me English knows thousands of words.

Make sense? Great – now that you’ve got an excellent idea of how relative clauses work, you’re well on your way to figuring out when you can omit relative pronouns.

Subjects and objects

Relative pronouns can be either subjects or objects. However, subject and object relative pronouns look exactly the same, so you need to be a grammar detective to figure out which ones are subjects and which ones are objects. Luckily, I’ve got some tips that makes it easy to find out which is which.

Subject pronouns: If a verb comes right after a relative pronoun, then the relative pronoun is a subject. Let’s take a look at an example:

        The woman who rode the subway was very pretty.

As you can see, the verb “rode” comes right after the relative pronoun “who” – and therefore, we know that the relative pronoun is a subject.

Object pronouns: If, on the other hand, there isn’t a verb directly after the relative pronoun, then we know that the relative pronoun is an object. Let’s check out an example of this:

        The woman whom John saw on the subway was very pretty.

Here, the relative pronoun “whom” is followed by the proper noun “John”, and therefore we know that it is an object.

Contact clauses

So we’ve mastered the relative clause and the distinction between subject and object pronouns. What, you ask, does this have to do with omitting “that”, “which,” and “who”?

Believe it or not, I’ve just given you all the information you need to know about omitting relative pronouns from sentences. Let’s return to our first example about the fluffy dogs:

        The dog that Mary is petting is very fluffy.

        The dog Mary is petting is very fluffy.

Do you notice anything about these sentences? Indeed – in this sentence, the relative pronoun “that” is an object. Note that here, you can omit the relative pronoun!

Now, let’s again revisit the fluffy dog in a different sentence:

        The dog that has brown fur is very fluffy.

Aha! Here, the relative pronoun “that” is a subject, because there is a verb right next to it. And not that here, you cannot omit the relative pronoun.

Now do you understand why sometimes you can omit the relative pronoun and make a contact clause, but sometimes you can’t? It’s all about subjects and objects. When the relative pronoun acts as an object, you can omit it, and create a contact clause. But when the relative pronoun acts as a subject, you absolutely cannot omit it – no exceptions ❗

Quickly solving the problem

Right now, you might be thinking, “This makes sense . . . but how can I possibly do it quickly enough?” Indeed, it seems like a lot of work to identify a relative clause, see if the pronoun is a subject or an object, and then decide if you can omit it. Luckily, there are a couple ways to do this quickly and accurately.

First, just focus on the verb, not the pronoun!

If there’s a verb immediately after the relative pronoun, you know it’s a subject, and you can’t omit the relative pronoun. If there’s no verb, you’re good to go – you can create a contact clause!

For example:

        The water that splashed my face was very cold. (Verb after relative pronoun = you can’t omit the relative pronoun!)

        The water that I drank was very cold. (No verb after relative pronoun = omit the relative pronoun as you please!)

        The water I drank was very cold.

Second, practice makes perfect. Constantly rehearse and perfect your English, and you’ll internalize all of its complicated rules in no time. Take advantage of the free resources on the Internet so you can practice every day, even if it’s just for a little bit.

Now you’re ready!

Now you know all there is to know about contact clauses, and when you can or can’t omit relative pronouns like “who”, “which”, or “that”. Practice what you’ve learned by listening to native speakers — you’ll be astonished by how frequently you hear contact clauses in casual conversation!

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Paul writes for Language Trainers, which provides individually-tailored language training on a one-on-one or small group basis worldwide. The English Accent Game is a free educational tool that Language Trainers provides; you can find that and other free resources on their website, or email Paul at paul@languagetrainers.com for more information.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • You’re welcome!

  • saad

    thank you

  • Yes, “who” does indeed act as a subject in this instance, but the weird thing about this sentence is that you can omit “who are” because there’s another clause proceeding the second one and “the same ago as ours” becomes an adjective clause describing the noun “children”. As a matter of fact, you can omit “that” in the first clause: “It’s great they have children the same age as ours”.

  • Tina G

    What about this sentence:
    It’s great that they have children who are the same age as ours.

    But it’s also correct to say:
    It’s great that they have children the same age as ours.

    “WHO ARE” was omitted, but doesn’t it act as a subject?

  • You’re welcome my friend!

  • Mziko Kapanadze

    it was a great explanation! thanks a lot 🙂

  • Hi Ingrid,

    While “who”, “which” and “that” are the most popular relative pronouns, “when”, “what” and “where” can also have the same function in certain situations, and your sample sentence happens to be one of those! 😉

    Cheers,

    Robby

  • Ingrid

    Hi, In the sentence “Next time ____ you write to me, you must tell me all about your new job. Why can you omit the word when as well? I thought you’re only allowed to omit who, which or that.

  • Hi Juhapekka,

    Here’s another blog post which delves into the subject of clause to phrase reduction: http://englishharmony.com/reduce-clauses-to-phrases/

    I’m sure you’ll find it very relevant in relation to the question you asked!

    Cheers,

    Robby

  • Paul

    I get what you’re saying — it seems like “made” could be just an adjective, in the same sense as “well-made” is an adjective in the sentence, “The car was well-made.” However, “The car was made in Germany” is pretty clearly passive voice — because we can say “The car was made in Germany by Volkswagen”. We can’t say “The car was well-made by Volkswagen” (or at least it sounds very unnatural).

    The mismatch between syntax and semantics is pretty well-documented in the literature. The reason is that English *always* needs a syntactic SUBJECT. In “The car was made in Germany,” there’s no semantic subject — the car is the semantic object, as you said.

    But we need a syntactic subject, so we resort to treating “The car” as a *syntactic* subject, even though it’s a *semantic* object. Weird, huh?

    Something kind of similar happens when we describe the weather. “It is raining” doesn’t have a semantic subject, but we need a syntactic subject, so we add the pronoun “it”, whose *sole* purpose is to give us the semantic subject that English requires.

    So — long story short: yes, there is a mismatch between semantics and syntax; yes, it’s really weird; no, there’s no good way to explain it . . . It’s just one of those bizarre idiosyncrasies of the English language. 🙂

  • Juhapekka

    Hi Robby and Paul

    Thanks for the additional explanations! It makes sense somewhat and it’s now much clearer for me but it’s still confusing. I guess it only shows that it’s difficult to come up with simple internally consistent grammar rules because in this case semantics and syntax seem to be in contradiction to each other! Could this contradictory to be solved somewhat by thinking that the sentence “The car was made in Germany” isn’t even in passive voice but in this particular sentence “the car” would be both semantically and syntactically subject and the past participle “made” would function as noun or as adjective which described the state of being of the car? Or is my explanation way too artificial or even wrong to think like that?

  • Paul

    Great observation, Juhapekka!

    The passive voice in English is one of the weirdest and most confusing things about the English language.

    You’re correct that in the sentence, “The car was made in Germany”, “car” is *semantically* an object. However, in terms of *syntax*, it’s still a subject. We know this because we use subject pronouns, even in passive voice constructions. For example:
    + “He was bitten by a dog.” (we don’t say “Him was bitten by a dog.”)

    Therefore, for the purposes of omitting (or not omitting) relative pronouns, it still follows all the rules of being a *subject* pronoun. Omitting the pronoun isn’t possible.

    Make sense? 🙂

    In response to your last question, “I drive a car made in Germany” is a correct sentence. This, however, is a little beyond the scope of the present article — it’s not just about omitting *pronouns*, but also omitting *auxiliary verbs*. It’s called clause-to-phrase reduction, and occurs in a variety of situations. For example:
    + People who live in large cities = People living in large cities…
    + Children who are born with heart problems = Children born with heart problems…

    Maybe this is a topic for another post! 😉

  • Hi Juhapekka,

    In this case “to be made”, or so it seems to me, isn’t even subject to the rules explained in this article due to the fact “made” is the Past Participle!

    I’ll ask Paul to elaborate on this – surely he’s going to have some grammar rule to quote! 😉

    Robby

  • Thanks Nick, I just corrected it! 😉

  • Juhapekka

    This is handy explanation because I don’t remember that omitting relative pronouns was taught to me in the school but one thing is not clear for me: Is it correct to omit relative pronoun in the sentence “I drive a car that was made in Germany.”? The sentence contains passive form “was made” and therefore “that” is object despite the thumb rule that relative pronoun is subject if it is preceding a verb! Following the “object rule” omitting is possible but following “verb rule” omitting isn’t possible!? Or is it right to omit the whole “that was” and to write “I drive a car made in Germany.”?

  • nick

    because there is a very right next to it. –> because there is a VERB right next to it