Relative Pronouns in English Grammar

Relative Pronouns in English Grammar

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

Relative Pronouns

We use relative pronouns to combine two clauses together. A clause is a sentence with a subject and a verb (you can say it's another word for a sentence).
In the English language, we have three main relative pronouns that we are going to discuss them here:

  1. who
  2. which
  3. that

Relative pronouns are used for different reasons:

Suitable for
who people
which things
that people or things

the Relative Pronoun 'That'

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 .

I like girls that are pretty .

Here 'that' is referring to a person.

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 which 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.

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 clauses.

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 .

Omitting the relative pronoun (that) which replaced the object, makes no difference in the meaning of the sentence and the clause is still correct.

Don't Repeat the Subject and Object in a Relative Clause

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 the traditional way of this clause.

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

This is the modern way of this clause.

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 the two clauses.

He's a boy whose opinion I respect .

Here '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 humans, animals or things), first you should learn about restrictive (also called essential) and non-restrivtive (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 put to sale was sold yesterday .

If only you want to emphasis that one particular house, the use o 'that' is correct. But, if there were several houses being sold yesterday, this use would be incorrect. Because 'that' emphasizes that there is only one house being sold yesterday.

  • A non-restrictive clause tell 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 sides 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 humans, 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.

Relative Pronouns: When and Where

'When' and 'where' are relative adverbs, but occasionally, these relative adverbs can also be used as relative pronouns.

  • When introduces clauses that describe a noun that refers to a time;
  • Where introduces clauses that describe a noun that refers to a place.

I could remember a time when I had wanted to become a singer .

'When' refers to the time.

She lives two blocks from where she works .

where refers to her work place.

Relative Pronoun: Why

'Why' is used as a relative pronoun to introduce a relative clause after the word 'reason'.

There's a reason why children are attracted to this book ; it's amazing .

'Reason' shows the necessity of the term ' why' as a relative pronoun.

The reason why I am here is to see you .

The same rule is applied here.

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