Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns are the words that begin relative clauses. The following words can act as pronouns for this type of clause:

who 

which

that

whose

whom

what

Identifying them can be confusing because they are not just used as relative pronouns. They also have other purposes. For example some can be used to introduce questions:

  • Who drank all the milk?
  • What time are we leaving?
  • Which one shall I choose?

'That' can also be used as a determiner or to make noun clauses:

  • I want that book
  • I believe that we should not eat red meat

So don't assume when you see one of the pronouns that it's a relative clause you are looking at. But if you know how to write and recognise relative clauses, you should not have a problem identifying them.

In the examples below, the relative pronoun is in red, and the full clause is underlined.

The Key Relative Pronouns

In the examples given below, the relative pronoun is in red and the full relative clause is underlined.

who


We can use who when the subject of the relative clause is a person:


Johnathon Smith, who lectures at the university, has been elected as MP

I want to go on holiday with somebody who enjoys walking

We don't tend to use who for animals, though it may be used for pets. 

which


If the subject of the relative clause is a thing then we use which but not who. It is also used for animals:


I'm going to open the present which my partner bought me first

My local school, which is three miles away, has adult evening classes

Our zoo now has pandas, which are an endangered species


that


That can be used instead of who or which in defining relative clauses, but not non-defining relative clauses. Remind yourself of the difference between defining and non-defining relative clauses if you are not sure.

In the examples we looked at above, they are all defining relative clauses, and so that can also be used:


I want to go on holiday with somebody thatwho enjoys walking

I'm going to open the present thatwhich my partner bought me first


whose


We use whose to refer to possession. Whatever follows the relative pronoun whose will belong to the noun preceding whose:


That is the family whose house was burgled

  • It is the family's house 

The man whose book was published is standing at the bar

  • It is the man's book

Unlike who, whose can also be used for animals and things:


The cat whose tail got trapped in the door is over there

This is the shirt whose colour I really don't like


whom


Whom is used instead of who when the relative pronoun is the object of the relative clause instead of the subject. It will be replacing him, her, them, or us.

The subject is the person or thing doing something, and the object is having something done to it:

  • I (subject) like (verb) him (object)

Below, the first example shows you again how we use who. In this case it is replacing 'He', which is the subject of the sentence: 


Who

The man is a teacher. He (subject) lives next door (object)

The man who (subject) lives next door (object) is a teacher

In the second example, the subject is 'My father', but this is not being replaced by the relative pronoun. Instead, the object is being replaced:


Whom

He is an ambitious man. My father (subject) has known him (object) many years

He is an ambitious man whom (object) My father (subject) has known many years

You will see that in the second case the, the word 'him' is being moved to make the relative pronoun. 

So instead of the usual 'subject-verb' relative clause structure, where the relative pronoun is the subject:

  • subject + verb (e.g. who was...)

We have this:

  • relative pronoun + subject + verb (e.g. whom he was...)

We tend to only use whom in formal situations, such as in writing. In most informal or even formal speaking situations, most people just use who.

what


What is used to mean 'the thing(s) that' or 'that which'. Unlike the other relative pronouns discussed above, it does not refer to a noun that comes before it:


You must give her what she asked for

  • You must give her the things that she asked for

He always recalls what has been said to him

  • He always recalls that which has been said to him