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

By Robby

If you are new here please read this first.

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.

P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!

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