Teaching Restrictive and Non Restrictive Relative Clauses

This activity requires that students have some knowledge of relative clauses. The aim of the activity is to help students distinguish restrictive (defining) relative clauses from non restrictive (non defining) clauses.

The activity

  • Write on the board the following two sentences:
    • Michael Jackson, who was a famous singer, died of an overdose.
    • The man who sent the anonymous letter is the real murderer.
  • Ask students to do the following:
    • Underline the relative clauses.
    • Underline the relative pronouns.
    • Decide which relative clause is essential and necessary to the meaning of the sentence.
    • Decide which relative clause is not really essential and provide only extra information to the meaning of the sentence.
    • identify which clause is put between commas.
  • Learners agree on definitions of restrictive and non restrictive clauses.
    • Restrictive relative clauses (also called identifying relative clauses or defining relative clauses) give detailed information defining a general term or expression. They are not put between commas.
    • Non- restrictive relative clauses (also called non-identifying relative clauses or non- defining relative clauses) give additional information about something, but do not define it. They are put between commas.
  • Students identify in the sentences above which clause is restrictive and which one is non restrictive.


Study the following examples and complete the chart:

  1. These are the regions which have been affected by the flood.
  2. My grandmother, who is dead now, used to teach English in Egypt.
  3. The museum, which we have never visited, is organizing a retrospective exhibition which will include more than 100 works of art by the Impressionist Salvador Dali
  4. They’re the people who want to sell the shop.
  5. Paris, where John lives, is the destination for my next vacations.
  6. The actress is now playing a woman whose husband was killed in the second World War.

The chart

Relative pronounClauseRestrictive or non restrictive

Follow up

Students complete the following sentences using appropriate relative clauses:

  1. Barack Obama…
  2. The girl…
  3. My mother…
  4. The boy….
  5. The house….
  6. My elder sister…

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1 Response

  1. I think the definition provided here can be a little confusing, for both teachers and students.

    I would describe Restrictive relative clauses as clauses which describe a subset of a Noun, not all instances of that Noun.

    Example: The elephant which has a long nose likes to sleep.

    Here, I am implying that this elephant has a long nose, but not all elephants have a long nose.

    I would describe Non- restrictive relative clauses as clauses which describe all instances of that Noun.

    Example: The elephant, which has a long nose, likes to sleep.

    Here, I am giving a information on something that is true for all elephants (“they all have long noses”). To me, this tells me that Non-restrictive relative clauses are non-restrictive because they are not restricted to a limited group of that Noun, but to all of them; therefore, they define that Noun.

    When I talk about this in class, I always have students tell me the opposite than what I have just described; they think that no commas equals a partial definition of the word. I chalk this up to a grammarian in some past era trying to describe grammar in a way that they understood without seeing how that description works in the real world. 🙂

    Tricky, thing, grammar descriptions!

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