Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns are matchmakers of English grammar. They come in the beginning of relative clauses and join two clauses together. Ready to learn about them?

Intermediate
"Relative Pronouns" in English Grammar

What Are Relative Pronouns?

We use relative pronouns to connect a clause or phrase to a noun or pronoun.

English Relative Pronouns

In the English language, we have five main relative pronouns:

  1. who
  2. which
  3. that
  4. whom
  5. whose

Relative pronouns are used for different reasons:

Relative Pronouns Suitable for
who people
which things
that people or things
whom people
whose people or things

Tip!

The relative pronoun 'that' is very flexible and you can use it for people or things. Both these sentences are correct:

I like girls who are pretty.

In this example, 'Who' refers to 'girls' here.

I like girls that are pretty.

Relative Pronoun as the Subject of Relative Clauses

If we have two sentences (or clauses) with subjects and verbs, we simply replace the relative pronoun with the subject in the second clause. The relative clause is the part of the sentence that contains the relative pronoun. If we look at the relative clause, the subject of the clause is the relative pronoun. Now look at some examples:
In the example 'I like my mom who is very kind' the word 'who' is the subject of our relative clause. Check out the examples.

He likes action movies. They are exciting. → He likes action movies that are exciting.

Here we have two different sentences and we can combine them by using the relative pronoun 'which' or 'that.'

I like my mom. She is very kind. → I like my mom who is very kind.

Here, we take the subject in the second clause 'she' and replace it with the appropriate relative pronoun 'who.'

In the above examples the word 'who' and 'that' are the subjects of our relative clause.

Relative Pronoun as the Object of Relative Clauses

We can also use the relative pronouns as the object of our relative clause. When we have two sentences, we can replace the object of the second sentence with a relative pronoun. Look at the example:

He likes the types of movies. He can watch them with friends. → He likes the types of movies (that) he can watch with friends.

Here, we take the word 'them' (the object of the second clause) and we replace it with the relative pronoun 'that.' So that becomes the object of the clause.

Now, it's important to know that when we use the relative pronouns as the object, we can omit the relative pronoun and the sentence still makes sense. But remember this happens only when the relative pronouns are objects.

He likes the types of movies he can watch with friends.

As you can see, omitting the relative pronoun (that) which replaced the object, makes no difference in the meaning of the sentence and the clause is still correct.

Using 'Who' as the Subject of the Relative Clause

Warning

You cannot use the relative pronoun and the subject or object again in a relative clause. Remember that the relative pronouns replace the subject or object of a relative clause.

He likes movies that are exciting. (Not He likes movies that they are exciting.)

'They' (subject) is replaced by 'that,' so we cannot write it again.

He likes friends that he can talk to. (Not He likes friends that he can talk to them.)

'Them' (object) is replaced by 'that,' so we cannot write it again.

Don't Forget the Prepositions

If the verb in our sentence requires a preposition, remember to use the preposition in the relative clause. In the second example above, it's very important to remember the preposition 'to.' The only part we can omit from the sentence is the subject or object, not the prepositions. Here's another example:

He likes to have friends. He can have fun with them. → He likes to have friends he can have fun with.

Here, we're only allowed to omit 'them.'

The Object Form of Who

The object form of 'who' is technically 'whom.' We can use 'whom' as the object of a verb or preposition. You might ask why we said technically? Because nowadays in modern English we no longer use it and we use 'who' as both the subject or object of a relative clause.

This is my mom, whom you saw at the parent-teacher conference.

This is my mom, who you saw at the parent-teacher conference.

The Possessive Form of Who

The possessive form of 'who' is 'whose*.' 'Whose' can be used for people, animals, or things.

It's the cat whose kitten is playing over there.

The kitten belongs to the cat and 'whose' indicates the possession while relating two clauses.

He's a boy whose opinion I respect.

Here in this example, 'whose' can indicate both possession and relative.

That or Which/Who?

In order to know how to choose between using the relative pronoun 'that' (since it can be used for people, animals, or things), first you should learn about restrictive (also called essential) and non-restrictive (also called non-essential) clauses.

  • A restrictive clause restricts the identity of the subject.

You should start the restrictive clause with 'that' if you're talking about a thing or an animal. Remember you should not use a comma with restrictive clauses.
But if the subject is a human, use 'who' to introduce the restrictive clause.

The house that was up for sale was sold yesterday.

If you only want to emphasis that one particular house, the use of 'that' is correct. But, if there were several houses up for sale yesterday, this use would be incorrect. Because 'that' emphasizes that there was only one house up for sale yesterday.

  • A non-restrictive clause tells us something interesting about a subject, but it does not define that subject.

You should start the non-restrictive clause with 'which.' Remember to put a comma on either side of the non-restrictive clause.
But if the subject is a human, use 'who' to introduce the non-restrictive clause.

The house, which was painted red, was sold yesterday.

Here the non-restrictive clause tells us that the house was painted red. But it does not tell us which of the several red houses in the neighborhood was sold. It would be incorrect to use this nonrestrictive clause if there had been only one house painted red.

When we want to write about people, we use 'who' rather than 'that' or 'which'. You might ask, 'if so, how we can distinguish between a restrictive or non-restrictive clause?' We distinguish between a restrictive and a non-restrictive clause by using commas.

The couple who called yesterday want to buy the house.

Restrictive.

The couple, who have two children, bought the house.

Non-restrictive.

Review

Relative pronouns and relative adverbs are basically used in the middle of sentences and clauses to connect them.

relative pronouns
to refer to things which
to refer to people and things that
to refer to people who
the possessive form of who whose
the objective form of who whom

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