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?

"Relative Pronouns" in English Grammar

What Are Relative Pronouns?

Relative pronouns are a type of pronoun used to introduce a relative clauses. Relative pronouns typically begin a subordinate clause and connect it to the main clause of the sentence.

English Relative Pronouns

There are five main relative pronouns in English:

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

Relative pronouns are used for different purposes:

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


The relative pronoun 'that' is very flexible, as it can be used to refer to both people and things.

I like girls who are pretty.

In this example, 'who' refers to 'girls'.

I like girls that are pretty.

Relative Pronouns as the Subject of Relative Clauses

To combine two sentences (or clauses) using a relative pronoun, we replace the subject of the second clause with the relative pronoun. The relative clause is the part of the sentence that contains the relative pronoun, which serves as the subject of the clause. Check out the examples.

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

We can combine the two sentences by using the relative pronoun 'which' or 'that.'

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

We take the subject of the second clause 'she' and replace it with the relative pronoun 'who'.

In the above examples the words 'who' and 'that' are the subjects of the relative clauses.

Relative Pronouns as the Object of Relative Clauses

Relative pronouns can also be used as the object of a relative clause. To combine two sentences in this way, we can replace the object of the second sentence with a relative pronoun and move it to the beginning of the sentence to form a relative clause. Pay attention to the examples:

He likes thriller movies. He can watch them with friends. → He likes thriller movies (that) he can watch with friends.

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

Note that when relative pronouns are used as the object of a sentence, we can omit the relative pronoun and the sentence would still make sense. But remember this is only possible when the relative pronoun is the object of the sentence.

He likes thriller 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.

Using 'Who' as the Subject of the Relative Clause


It is grammatically incorrect to include both the relative pronoun and the subject or object in a relative clause, as the pronoun is meant to replace the subject or object.

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

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

Don't Forget the Prepositions

If the verb in the sentence requires a preposition, the preposition must be included in the relative clause. The only element that can be omitted from the sentence is the subject or object, not the prepositions. In the second example above, it's very important to remember the preposition 'to.' 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. However, in modern English 'whom' is not used frequently, and 'who' is commonly used as both the subject and object of a relative clause.

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

This is my mom, who you met 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 both indicate possession and mark the relative clause.

That or Which/Who?

To determine when to use the relative pronoun 'that' - which can refer to people, animals, or things - it is important to understand the distinction between restrictive (also called essential) and non-restrictive (also called non-essential) clauses.

  • A restrictive clause is necessary to distinguish the noun or pronoun from others of the same type

Restrictive clauses cannot be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence and are not set off by commas. When talking about a thing or an animal, the restrictive clause begins with 'that'. However, if the subject is a human, 'who' is used to introduce the restrictive clause.

The house that was up for sale was sold yesterday.

The couple who called yesterday want to buy the house.

  • A non-restrictive clause provides additional, non-essential information about a noun or pronoun in a sentence.

A non-restrictive clause is not necessary to identify the noun or pronoun being referred to, and can be removed without changing the basic meaning of the sentence. Furthermore, non-restrictive clauses are set off by commas.
When the subject of the sentence is a thing or an animal, the non-restrictive clause should start with 'which.'

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.

However, if the subject is a human, 'who' is used to introduce the non-restrictive clause.
So how do we distinguish between a restrictive or non-restrictive clause with a human subject? We distinguish a non-restrictive clause from a restrictive clause by using commas.

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


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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