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Relative Pronouns

Throughout your English studies, you've likely come across the term pronouns, but did you know there are several different types of pronouns? There are pronouns to replace names, express possessions, highlight specific things, and introduce dependent clauses. Today we'll look at the last example and learn all about relative pronouns.

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Relative Pronouns

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Throughout your English studies, you've likely come across the term pronouns, but did you know there are several different types of pronouns? There are pronouns to replace names, express possessions, highlight specific things, and introduce dependent clauses. Today we'll look at the last example and learn all about relative pronouns.

Pronouns

Before diving into relative pronouns, let's ensure we have a good understanding of what pronouns are and their role in a sentence.

Pronoun - A pro-form word that replaces a noun or a noun phrase in a sentence. Pronouns can function as the subject or object of a sentence. For example, "Lily ate the cake." --> "She ate it."

Common examples of pronouns include personal pronouns (e.g., he, she, they), reflexive pronouns (e.g., myself, ourselves), possessive pronouns (e.g., mine, yours), demonstrative pronouns (this, that, those), interrogative pronouns (who, what, where), and relative pronouns, which we'll look at now.

Relative Pronoun Definition

Relative pronouns are words that introduce a relative clause and connect it to the independent clause. Relative clauses are sometimes called adjective or modifying clauses because they provide extra detail to the main clause. Relative clauses are dependent and cannot stand alone.

The dog that brought the newspaper is well-trained.

In the above example, the relative pronoun "that" introduces the relative clause "that brought the newspaper" and connects it to the main clause "The dog is well-trained."

Relative pronouns can be a little trickier to understand as it isn't so obvious which nouns they replace. Let's look at some examples to gain a better understanding.

Without pronouns, the above sentence would look a little something like this:

The dog brought the newspaper. The dog is well-trained.

This means the relative pronoun "that" replaces the subject (the dog) in the relative clause. In summary, the relative pronoun and the modified noun refer to the same thing (that = the dog).

Relative pronouns, Dog, StudySmarterFig 1. The dog that brought the newspaper is well-trained.

Purpose of Relative Pronouns

To recap, the primary purpose of relative pronouns is to introduce a relative clause. The relative pronoun acts as a conjoining word and joins the main independent clauses to the dependent relative clause.

Relative Pronouns List

There are several different relative pronouns you can use depending on the type of noun they are modifying/replacing.

  • That - can replace a person, place, animal, or thing

  • Who - can replace a person

  • Whom - can replace a person and acts as the object of a sentence

  • Which - can replace a person, place, animal, or thing

  • What - can replace a place or thing

As you can see, that and which can replace the same things. We typically use that to introduce restrictive clauses and which to introduce nonrestrictive clauses. We cover this in more detail toward the end of the article.

Possessive Relative Pronouns

The main possessive relative pronoun is whose. It is the possessive form of both who and which, meaning it can modify nouns that refer to people and things.

The business is having financial problems. The business's owner is unwell.

The business whose owner is unwell is having financial problems.

Compound Relative Pronouns

The compound relative pronouns are:

  • Whoever

  • Whatever

  • Whichever

  • Whomever

Compound relative pronouns can serve multiple functions in a sentence, such as the subject, the object, an adverb, or a conjunction. They are used to say, "it doesn't matter who/what/which/whom."

I want whichever ice cream they have.

Relative Pronouns and Clauses

As previously mentioned, pronouns can function as the subject or object of a sentence or clause: the same is true for relative pronouns.

When a relative pronoun modifies the subject of the main clause, it serves as the subject in the relative clause. On the other hand, when it modifies the object of the main clause, it acts as the object of the relative clause.

You may also find that a relative pronoun can be an object or subject of a relative clause even if the antecedent is an object or subject in the main clause.

Let's look at an example where the relative clause modifies the subject:

J. D. Salinger is the author. J. D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye.

J. D. Salinger is the author who wrote The Catcher in the Rye.

Now an example where the relative clause modifies the object:

J. D. Salinger is an author. I have met him.

J. D. Salinger is an author that I have met.

All of the relative pronouns listed above can function as a subject or an object relative pronoun, except for whom, which can only be used as an object.

Lisa married her fiance this year. I met Lisa at college.

Lisa, whom I met at college, married her fiance this year.

In this example, we can see that in the relative clause, the subject is I, and the object is Lisa.

Although whom is the correct word choice here, it is seen as formal and isn't used as often anymore. In casual spoken language, it is common to hear who replacing the object, rather than whom. For formal writing, you should aim to use the correct relative pronoun.

Object with Preposition

It is common to see relative pronouns accompanied by a preposition when it is the object of a clause. This occurs when the relative pronoun replaces the object of a preposition in the main clause.

For example:

He is the teacher. The committee gave a bonus to him.

He is the teacher that the committee gave a bonus to.

Grammatically, the preposition typically appears after the relative pronoun. The exception is when using the more formal whom, where the preposition appears just before.

He is the teacher to whom the committee gave a bonus.

Relative Pronouns, teacher in a school, StudySmarterFig 2. Which teacher is he? The teacher that received the bonus.

Omitting Relative Pronouns

In object relative clauses (i.e., where the relative pronoun acts as the object), it is possible to omit (remove) the relative pronoun altogether.

Here are the tickets (that) you need for tonight.

He can invite anyone (that) he wants to.

It is not possible to do the same when the relative pronoun is acting as the subject in the relative clause.

The surgeon lived in Tokyo for two years performed the operation.

The surgeon that lived in Tokyo for two years performed the operation.

Restrictive Vs. Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses

A common issue people encounter when using relative pronouns is knowing when to use which and when to use that. The answer depends on whether the clause it's introducing is restrictive or nonrestrictive.

  • Restrictive clauses - Restrictive clauses introduce essential information to the meaning of the sentence. It is not necessary to use commas when introducing restrictive clauses.

  • Nonrestrictive clauses - Nonrestrictive clauses introduce nonessential information. Nonrestrictive clauses should appear between two commas.

If you are unsure whether to use which or that, ask yourself whether the clause is restrictive or nonrestrictive.

Restrictive clauses use that, and nonrestrictive clauses use which.

Restrictive clause - "The invention that I believe changed the world as we know it is the internet."

If we remove the restrictive clause, the sentence loses its meaning.

Nonrestrictive clause - "The car, which is on sale, can go 300 mph."

In this example, the sentence would still make sense without the nonrestrictive clause, and it is simply providing extra information.

Relative Pronouns Examples

Here is a handy chart outlining some examples of relative pronouns:

Relative PronounExample Sentence Type of clause in the example
ThatThe boy that won the competition is on his way to Disneyland. Subject relative restrictive clause
WhoMy sister, who lives in London, is currently on vacation. Subject relative nonrestrictive clause
Which The laptop, which has 16 GB of RAM, costs $1000.Subject relative nonrestrictive clause
WhatIs this what you wanted to buy?Object relative restrictive clause
WhomStephen King is an author whom I admire. Object relative restrictive clause
WhoseHe apologized to the woman whose car was hit. Possessive restrictive clause

Relative Pronouns - Key takeaways

  • Relative pronouns are words that introduce a relative clause and connect it to the independent clause.
  • Relative clauses are sometimes called adjective or modifying clauses because they provide extra detail to the noun in the main clause.
  • Relative pronouns can function as the subject or object of the relative clause. They also act as conjunctions, joining the dependent and independent clauses together.
  • The relative pronouns are that, what, which, who, whom, whose, whatever, whichever, whoever, and whomever.
  • Relative pronouns can introduce both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

Frequently Asked Questions about Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns are pro-form words that introduce a relative clause and connect it to the independent clause.

The relative pronouns are: that, what, which, who, whom, whose, whatever, whichever, whoever, and whomever.

Relative pronouns are important as they can help us to avoid unnecessary repetition in a sentence. They do this by acting as the subject or object in the relative clause. 

Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses. The relative pronoun acts as a conjoining word and joins the main independent clause to the dependent relative clause. 

To use a relative pronoun decide which word is best, e.g., use who to replace a person, and place it at the beginning of the relative clause. If the clause is restrictive (necessary to the meaning of the sentence) you do not need to use commas. If the clause is nonrestrictive (not necessary to the meaning) place it between two commas. 

The different types of relative pronouns are:

  • That - can replace a person, place, animal, or thing

  • Who  - can replace a person
  • Whom - can replace a person and acts as the object of a sentence
  • Which - can replace a place, animal, or thing
  • What - can replace a place or thing 
  • Whose - shows possession 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What is a pro-form word?

Select the relative pronouns:

Which relative pronoun can only function as the object of the relative clause?

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