Level: beginner

The relative pronouns are:

Subject Object Possessive
who who/whom whose
which which whose
that that -

We use relative pronouns to introduce relative clauses. Relative clauses tell us more about people and things:

Lord Thompson, who is 76, has just retired.
This is the house which Jack built.
Marie Curie is the woman that discovered radium.

We use:

  • who and whom for people
  • which for things
  • that for people or things.

Two kinds of relative clause

There are two kinds of relative clause:

1.  We use relative clauses to make clear which person or thing we are talking about:

Marie Curie is the woman who discovered radium.
This is the house which Jack built.

In this kind of relative clause, we can use that instead of who or which:

Marie Curie is the woman that discovered radium.
This is the house that Jack built.

We can leave out the pronoun if it is the object of the relative clause:

This is the house that Jack built. (that is the object of built)

Relative pronouns 1

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Relative pronouns 2

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Be careful!

The relative pronoun is the subject/object of the relative clause, so we do not repeat the subject/object:

Marie Curie is the woman who she discovered radium.
(who is the subject of discovered, so we don't need she)

This is the house that Jack built it.
(that is the object of built, so we don't need it)

2.  We also use relative clauses to give more information about a person, thing or situation:

Lord Thompson, who is 76, has just retired.
We had fish and chips, which I always enjoy.
I met Rebecca in town yesterday, which was a nice surprise.

With this kind of relative clause, we use commas (,) to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

Be careful!

In this kind of relative clause, we cannot use that:

Lord Thompson, who is 76, has just retired.
(NOT Lord Thompson, that is 76, has just retired.)

and we cannot leave out the pronoun:

We had fish and chips, which I always enjoy.
(NOT We had fish and chips, I always enjoy.)

Relative pronouns 3

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Relative pronouns 4

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Level: intermediate

whose and whom

We use whose as the possessive form of who:

This is George, whose brother went to school with me.

We sometimes use whom as the object of a verb or preposition:

This is George, whom you met at our house last year.
(whom is the object of met)

This is George’s brother, with whom I went to school.
(whom is the object of with)

but nowadays we normally use who:

This is George, who you met at our house last year.
This is George’s brother, who I went to school with.

Relative pronouns 5

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Relative pronouns with prepositions

When who(m) or which have a preposition, the preposition can come at the beginning of the clause:

I had an uncle in Germany, from who(m) I inherited a bit of money.
We bought a chainsaw, with which we cut up all the wood.

or at the end of the clause:

I had an uncle in Germany, who(m) I inherited a bit of money from.
We bought a chainsaw, which we cut all the wood up with.

But when that has a preposition, the preposition always comes at the end:

I didn't know the uncle that I inherited the money from.
We can't find the chainsaw that we cut all the wood up with.

Relative pronouns 6

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when and where

We can use when with times and where with places to make it clear which time or place we are talking about:

England won the World Cup in 1966. It was the year when we got married.
I remember my twentieth birthday. It was the day when the tsunami happened.

Do you remember the place where we caught the train?
Stratford-upon-Avon is the town where Shakespeare was born.

We can leave out when:

England won the World Cup in 1966. It was the year we got married.
I remember my twentieth birthday. It was the day the tsunami happened.

We often use quantifiers and numbers with relative pronouns: 

all of which/whom most of which/whom many of which/whom
lots of which/whom a few of which/whom none of which/whom
one of which/whom two of which/whom etc.

She has three brothers, two of whom are in the army.
I read three books last week, one of which I really enjoyed.
There were some good programmes on the radio, none of which I listened to.

 

Comments

Hi Kirk,

Great that you are online.

Well, I am not sure if the below sentence is logical or semantically possible, but this is the only example that I could think of right now.

"That was the spot where the treasure was found."

I don't know if the use of "was" is logical in the given example. Using the past form would convey the idea that the spot is no longer there.

Being a native speaker, what does your intuition tell you about the example?

Thanks!

Hi mik0303,

The sentence

That was the spot where the treasure was found

is perfectly fine. It may mean that the spot is no longer there, or have a different meaning. For example, it may be part of a narrative (We went along the path until we reached a clearing. That was the spot where...), for example, as a person describes their memory of the spot.

 

Verb forms in relative clauses are independent of the main cause but still need to be consistent in terms of logic (causes taking place before results, for example).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for the confirmation and explanation Peter.

By the way, please allow me to highlight some grammar usages/constructs which you used in your response.

Being a second language learner, learning the English language is pretty challenging because aside from the rules that we have to learn, there are variations; kinds of Englishes, language registers, and different schools of thoughts advocating how to approach the learning of the language that we have to consider.

These make it learning the language a bit difficult. What is usually learned from books and in schools are often defied in the real world.

Below are some of my observations. I hope you could give us explanations to shed light on its usage. May we know what comes to your mind when you, native speakers, hear such grammatical constructs from other native speakers.

1. With the use of the verb "have" below

I noticed that you inadvertently used "have" instead of "has" in the sentence "It ____ a different meaning." I have also noticed this usage to some native speakers and mostly to NNES.

Just to give you an idea what goes in some of NNES's mind, our preference to using the verb "have" over "has" seemed to be conditioned by the idea that "have" means "position" or "ownership" whether in singular or plural. That is why you are likely to encounter NNES saying " She have a pen" instead of the correct form "She has a pen".

2. Another observation is with the use of the article.

Shouldn't it be " it may be A part of a narrative"?

3. Pronoun - Antecedent Agreement

"as a person describes their memory of the spot."

Shouldn't it be "as a person describes his or her memory of the spot"?

Hello mik0303,

In answer to your questions:

 

1. With the use of the verb "have" below

I noticed that you inadvertently used "have" instead of "has" in the sentence "It ____ a different meaning." I have also noticed this usage to some native speakers and mostly to NNES.

Just to give you an idea what goes in some of NNES's mind, our preference to using the verb "have" over "has" seemed to be conditioned by the idea that "have" means "position" or "ownership" whether in singular or plural. That is why you are likely to encounter NNES saying " She have a pen" instead of the correct form "She has a pen".

'Have' and 'has' are simply grammatical variants (non-third person present vs third-person present) and do not have any difference in meaning. In the sentence you quote 'have' is used because of the modal verb 'may' (...it may have... or have...). The sentence did contain a typo, which was the pronoun 'it' – I have edited the sentence to remove this.

 

2. Another observation is with the use of the article.

Shouldn't it be " it may be A part of a narrative"?

Both 'part of' and 'a part of' are possible here, though 'part of' is the more common. 'A part of' is more often used when there are a number of identifiable parts to a whole, such as regions in a country or steps in a program, and we are talking about one of these. 'Part of' is more general and simply means not the whole thing.

 

3. Pronoun - Antecedent Agreement

"as a person describes their memory of the spot."

Shouldn't it be "as a person describes his or her memory of the spot"?

When the gender of a (singular) person is not known or identified we can use 'he or she' (with a singular noun) or 'they' (with a plural noun). The former of these is rather clumsy if it is repeated several times.

This use of 'they' is very old and you can find examples in Shakespeare and Chaucer.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter,

Thank you for clearing up the language use/ structure in question.

Just one more question though regarding the pronoun-antecedent agreement. I did read some grammatical prescriptions that one may use the pronoun "they" as a genderless pronoun if its referent or antecedent is a common noun or a noun that has no specific gender to avoid sexism in the language, but would it not raise the pedant's eyebrows hearing such usage? And how likely is this usage being accepted nowadays?

Thanks!

Hello mik0303,

If the referent has an inherent gender, such as a word like 'man' or 'girl', then a gendered pronoun is used. If the referent has no inherent gender, such as 'person', 'child' or 'doctor', then 'they' is normally used.

There is nothing non-standard about this and it is perfectly acceptable. As I mentioned, it is a use which has a very long history in English.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Peter!

With your answer, I can properly position myself in terms of my understanding how the language is used by native speakers.

My fluency is greatly impaired by the differing views of native speakers. One may find a certain usage acceptable but not grammatical, and the other may deem that a certain usage is not acceptable and ungrammatical.

What I have noticed too is that native speakers can easily notice any grammar gaffes committed by non-native speakers when they speak or write to them, but, often than not, native speakers don't mind any grammar lapses (I suppose) when they speak or write to native speakers.

Some language teachers too discount native speakers using structures, both in spoken and written form, that do not conform to the grammar rules, which are the same rules are being strictly observed in the non-native speakers/learners.

Being a second language speaker/learner, I am always seized by doubt whenever I hear or see native speakers speak and write in a way which is different from what is prescribed by teachers and the grammar books, and also by the people who we shall call grammar police and/or grammar nazis.

That is why whenever I speak or write I pause and think about the grammaticality of my utterance - whether what I have said or what I am about to say, even if the structure is used by native speakers, is going to be flagged ungrammatical and unacceptable.

The problem that I am seeing is that a lot of people try to impose the rules of writing to be used in speaking, but in reality whenever majority of the native speakers use the language they don't say "It's I" but "It is me" and "You and me" instead of "You and I", and there's a lot more, isn't it?

Well, I guess, I need to park from here. =)

I hope you, guys, won't get tired of answering questions from your members.

I am pretty sure that I'll be visit this site more often to learn more about the English language and also to understand the language in the eye of a native speaker.
Understanding the language in different perspectives is a great way to learn any target language. We become the eye for what each other fails to see.

Thanks Kirk and most (e)specially to Peter for his time and (his) patience to answer my seemingly endless questions about the English language. =)

Thanks heaps!

I am unable to edit my post above. Please do allow me to corrections below.

*which are the same rules are being strictly observed in the non-native speakers/learners.

Should be which are the same rules being strictly observed in the non-native speakers/learner.

*I am pretty sure that I'll be visit this site...

Should be "I am pretty sure that I'll be visiting this site..."

*for his time and (his) patience to answer my ...

Should be "for his time and (his) patience in answering my..."

Hello. Can I say "That is"?

Hi Eugene Yezhov

Yes, that can be correct, depending on the context and what you mean.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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