Relative Pronouns

Definition

A relative pronoun is a type of pronoun used to connect a relative clause (also known as an adjective clause) to the main clause in a sentence. Relative clauses either help clarify who or what a sentence is talking about (known as the antecedent), or else give extra information about it.
Here are the five most commonly used relative pronouns:
  • that
  • which
  • who
  • whom
  • whose
Less commonly used relative pronouns include the following:
  • where
  • when
  • whoever
  • whosoever
  • whomever
  • whichever
  • wherever
  • whatever
  • whatsoever

Functions of the relative pronoun

Subjects, objects, and possession

In a relative clause, the relative pronoun functions in one of three ways: as the subject, the object, or a possessive pronoun (though whose is the only possessive relative pronoun). The usage of a relative pronoun ultimately depends on its antecedent and the relative clause it introduces.
We can use this table as a quick guide to the functions of relative pronouns:
Type of Antecedent
Subject
Object
Possessive
People
Who
Who / Whom
Whose
Things
Which
Which
Whose
People or Things
That
That
Now let’s look at how each of these can be used in a sentence.

Subject

  • “The woman who came to my house was a salesperson.” (Who is the subject of the relative clause who came to my house, which describes the antecedent the woman.)
  • “The male birds danced and sang, which attracted nearby females.” (Which is the subject of the non-restrictive relative clause which attracted nearby females that describes the antecedent danced and sang.)
  • “I have to go mend the fence that is broken.” (That is the subject of the restrictive relative clause that is broken, describing the antecedent the fence.)
  • “I want a computer which can download a lot of games.” (Which is the subject of the relative clause which can download a lot of games and describes the antecedent a computer.)

Object

  • “I don’t know if I passed the test that I took yesterday.” (That is the object of relative clause that I took yesterday and describes the antecedent the test.)
  • “The new employee whom I hired is a dedicated worker.” (Whom is the object of the relative clause whom I hired and describes the antecedent the new employee.)

Possession

The relative pronoun whose is unique in that it is the only one that can describe possession. It comes before a noun in a sentence, modifying it like an adjective to indicate that it belongs to the antecedent.
  • “She tried to help the student whose lunch money had been stolen.” (Whose modifies lunch money and introduces the relative clause whose lunch money had been stolen, which describes the antecedent the student.)

Substituting relative pronouns

Most relative pronouns are capable of multiple functions and usages, meaning they can be used in place of one another in certain circumstances. The table below gives a quick breakdown of when it is acceptable to use each relative pronoun:
Can be used...
as a subject?
as an object?
as a possessive?
to describe things?
to describe people?
who
(informal)
whom
(formal)
whose
which
that

Relative pronouns that can be replaced

  • “The woman who/that came to my house was a salesperson.” (Who and that are interchangeable when describing people.)
  • “The new employee whom/who/that* I hired is a dedicated worker.” (In addition to whom, who and that can also be used as an object in informal English when describing a person in a restrictive relative clause.)
  • “The mailman, whom/who* my father knew in high school, is running for the state senate.” (When whom is the object of a non-restrictive relative clause, it can only be replaced by who)
  • “I want a computer that/which** can download a lot of games.” (Which and that can both describe things.)
(*Usage note 1: Traditionally, whom is considered the only correct relative pronoun when functioning as the object of a relative clause, but nowadays who is also acceptable [as is that in restrictive relative clauses]. In fact, most people these days only use who, while whom tends to be reserved for more formal English.)
(**Usage note 2: In general, the relative pronoun that is preferable to which in restrictive relative clauses; however, which is largely considered acceptable, especially in informal writing. We will discuss the differences between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses in more detail later.)

Relative pronouns that cannot be replaced

  • “The male birds danced and sang, which attracted nearby females.” (Since which is the subject of a non-restrictive relative clause describing a thing (the act of dancing and singing), it cannot be replaced by any other relative pronoun.)
  • “She tried to help the student whose lunch money had been stolen.” (Only whose can be used as a possessive relative pronoun, whether it describes a person or a thing.)

Restrictive vs. non-restrictive relative clauses

Restrictive (defining) relative clauses

Restrictive relative clauses (also known as defining relative clauses) are clauses carrying essential information. Without its restrictive relative clause, a main clause will lack a vital description and fail to convey the full or appropriate meaning. Because of the necessity of their information, restrictive relative clauses are not set apart by commas:
  • “I’ve never understood people who hate sports.”
  • “That book that I read when I was young is being made into a movie.”
  • “Here is the website which my sister created.”
  • “Did you hear about the sailor whose ship was haunted by a headless ghost?”
  • “I think a man whom my father hired has been stealing from the company.”
If you were to remove each example’s relative clause, the corresponding main clause would change in meaning and appear to be lacking necessary information out of context. For example:
  • “I’ve never understood people who hate sports.”
  • “I’ve never understood people.” (The speaker doesn’t understand people or their intentions.)
  • “That book that I read when I was young is being made into a movie.”
  • “That book is being made into a movie.” (Some unspecified book is being made into a movie.)
  • “Here is the website which my sister created.”
  • “Here is the website.” (The speaker is indicating some unidentified website.)
  • “Did you hear about the sailor whose ship was haunted by a headless ghost?”
  • “Did you hear about the sailor?” (The speaker is asking the listener whether he or she has heard about some unidentified sailor.)
  • “I think a man whom my father hired has been stealing from the company.”
  • “I think a man has been stealing from the company.” (Some unspecified man is thought to have been stealing.)

That vs. which in restrictive clauses

As discussed earlier, that is preferable to which in restrictive relative clauses, though many writers tend to use both, especially in less formal writing. As a general rule, though, which is normally reserved for non-restrictive relative clauses, which we will learn about in the following section.

Non-restrictive (non-defining) relative clauses

Unlike restrictive relative clauses, non-restrictive relative clauses (or non-defining relative clauses) contain non-essential or supplemental information to the main clause that, when taken away, does not affect or dramatically change the overall intent and meaning of the sentence.
Non-restrictive clauses require the use of commas to distinguish the non-essential information from the rest of the sentence.
Which is used to introduce non-restrictive clauses that describe things or non-domestic animals:
  • “The large park, which she used to visit when she was young, had been around for many years and was a popular gathering spot for children.”
  • “I had to search extensively for the missing cookbook, which took me many hours to find.”
  • “The song, which was his favorite, could be heard from miles away.”
  • “The cattle, which always wander away from the ranch, didn’t return until nightfall.”
Who and whom may also be used in non-restrictive clauses that describe people or domestic animals (pets):
  • “The woman, who volunteers at a local homeless shelter, won the lottery.”
  • “My friend, Tom, whom I haven’t seen in years, is coming to stay with us tomorrow.”
  • “Our dog, who is missing one of his hind legs, ran away yesterday.”
Whose can be used with both people and things in non-restrictive clauses:
  • “Jane, whose primary goal is to become a doctor, sent out her medical school applications last month.”
  • “The old bank, whose exterior is falling apart, is remarkably beautiful on the inside.”
It is important to remember that that, as a relative pronoun, can only be used in restrictive relative clauses. On the contrary, who, whom, whose, and which are all capable of introducing both restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses (although, in restrictive relative clauses, that is preferable to which).

Omitting relative pronouns

Sometimes, especially in informal writing, relative pronouns can be omitted altogether. This can only be done when the relative pronoun is the object of a restrictive relative clause.
For example, if a relative pronoun is the object of a clause, there are several ways you can phrase the sentence, depending on how formal or informal you want it to sound:
  • “The girl to whom I gave my ice cream looked up and smiled at me.” (very formal)
  • “The girl whom I gave my ice cream to looked up and smiled at me.” (formal)
  • “The girl who I gave my ice cream to looked up and smiled at me.” (casual)
  • “The girl that I gave my ice cream to looked up and smiled at me.” (very casual)
  • “The girl I gave my ice cream to looked up and smiled at me.” (most casual)
Unlike whom, which can only act as an object of a relative clause, who and that can function as both objects and subjects when describing people; therefore, in relative clauses, it is acceptable to replace the rather formal-sounding whom with either who or that, or omit the relative pronoun altogether.
When describing things instead of people, the relative pronouns that and which may be omitted as long as they are used, like whom, as an object of a restrictive relative clause:
  • “The house that I want to buy is going on sale today.”
  • “The house which I want to buy is going on sale today.”
  • “The house I want to buy is going on sale today.”
Similarly, if a relative clause uses an auxiliary verb (such as to be) + a present or past participle after the relative pronoun, it can be worded like this:
  • “The girl who is jumping into the lake is a world-famous diver.”
  • “The girl that is jumping into the lake is a world-famous diver.”
  • “The girl jumping into the lake is a world-famous diver.”

Relative pronouns as objects of prepositions

In certain cases, relative pronouns can be used as objects of prepositions, meaning the relative pronoun works in conjunction with a preposition to modify the subject or verb of the relative clause. Only whose, which, and whom can function as objects of prepositions.
In more formal English, we place a preposition before the pronoun. Here are some of the combinations you might see:
  • with whom
  • to whom
  • for whom
  • through which
  • of which
  • about which
  • from which
  • at whose
  • in whose
  • with whose
In modern English, positioning prepositions in front of relative pronouns often sounds overly formal, especially when it comes to the relative pronoun whom. As a result, it is generally acceptable for a preposition to come after a relative clause instead of before a relative pronoun. For example:
  • “The teacher with whom I spoke had many interesting things to say.” (Very formal)
  • “The teacher whom/who/that I spoke with had many interesting things to say.” (Less formal. Whom is most often replaced by either who or that, and the preposition with is moved to the end of the relative clause.)
  • “The teacher I spoke with had many interesting things to say.” (Most casual. The relative pronoun is omitted, and the preposition is kept at the end of the relative clause.)
It is also acceptable to place a preposition at the end of a relative clause when using the pronoun which:
  • “The home in which I grew up holds many dear memories for me.” (Very formal. In this case, you cannot replace which with that, as that cannot be used as an object of a preposition.)
  • “The home that/which I grew up in holds many dear memories for me.” (less formal)
  • “The home I grew up in holds many dear memories for me.” (most casual)
The pronoun whose follows this same pattern of prepositional placement, except that it cannot be substituted with another pronoun and it cannot be omitted:
  • “My friend, in whose house I’m staying, invited me to see a movie with him.” (very formal)
  • “My friend, whose house I’m staying in, invited me to see a movie with him.” (less formal)

When and Where

When and where are also used as relative pronouns, especially in less formal writing and conversation. They are always used in restrictive relative clauses.
We use when to describe antecedents that have to do with time, as in:
  • “That’s the day when we met.”
  • “I’m looking forward to a time when the world will be at peace.”
  • We use where to describe antecedents that have to do with location, as in:
  • “The café where we went on Sunday was very nice.”
  • “The town where she lives is only an hour away.”

Using prepositions for formal English

In more formal English, where and when are often replaced with a preposition + which to mark precise locations or points in time. For example:
  • “We preferred a part of the country where we could live in peace and quiet.”
  • “We preferred a part of the country in which we could live in peace and quiet .”
  • “Ben is looking forward to the day when he can finally join the army.”
  • “Ben is looking forward to the day on which he can finally join the army.”
Quiz

1. Which of the following is not one of the five most commonly used relative pronouns?





2. Which of the following sentences uses a relative pronoun incorrectly?





3. Choose the sentence that contains a non-restrictive relative clause.





4. Which of the following sentences is the least formal?





5. Select the relative pronoun that correctly completes the following sentence:
“The pizza, ____ was pepperoni, was left in the oven too long.”





6. Select the relative pronoun that correctly completes the following sentence:
“The male candidate, ____ I hadn’t voted for, won the election anyway.”





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