Relative pronouns are the words that begin relative clauses. The following words can act as pronouns for this type of clause:
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:
'That' can also be used as a determiner or to make noun clauses:
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.
In the examples given below, the relative pronoun is in red and the full relative clause is underlined.
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.
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 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 that / who enjoys walking
I'm going to open the present that / which my partner bought me first
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
The man whose book was published is standing at the bar
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 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:
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:
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:
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:
We have this:
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 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
He always recalls what has been said to him
Now test yourself in this relative pronoun quiz.
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