Relative pronouns and relative clauses

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.

 

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Submitted by Io on Tue, 15/12/2015 - 10:46

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hi where I can find more exercises with relative pronouns? Thank you

Submitted by Eddi on Wed, 11/11/2015 - 19:16

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''I liked the restaurant WHERE i had lunch'' in this sentence is where a relative pronoun ? if not what is it considered in grammar. Thanks in advance

Hello Eddi,

'where' can be used like a relative pronoun to introduce a relative clause, as in the sentence you cite. Some people refer to 'where' as a relative pronoun for this reason, but others avoid calling it a pronoun. There's another, lengthier explanation of this topic in the Cambridge Dictionary if you want to know more.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by NA7 on Thu, 05/11/2015 - 18:45

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"She wrote a best-selling book, the name of ..... I've forgotten completely." The correct answer is which but not that. Is it referring to the book or to her? I am getting confused; why not that?

Hello nuha alsaif,

'that' is not used as the object of a preposition – instead 'which' (or 'whom' if the antecedent is a person, which is not the case here) is used. Since the relative pronoun in this sentence is the object of the preposition 'of', only 'which' is correct here.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by rosario70 on Sat, 31/10/2015 - 10:47

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Good morning, i have a question for you: may i say this clause in the following way? 1)frank is a friend who is worth fighting for. 2) brenda is a woman who is worth getting married. 3 ) my wife is the only person whom is worth living for. are they correct? maybe there is need a comma before the pronoun thanks in advance.

Hello rosario70,

1) is correct, though of course 'Frank' should be capitalised. 2) is not standard, because 'get married' is an intransitive verb form; I'd suggest 'worth marrying' as an alternative. 3) is almost correct – you should use 'who' instead of 'whom', as it is the subject of the verb 'is'. There's no need for a comma before the relative pronouns in these sentences, as the clauses are defining relative clauses.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Faisal09 on Thu, 22/10/2015 - 12:11

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Hello, We know that Relative pronoun sits just beside the antecedent it represents. but in this example which is given above the rule is not followed- "I had an uncle in Germany who[m] I inherited a bit of money from" Here 'who' is representing 'I' but it sits after Germany. is there any other rule? please elucidate or give some link where I can find my answer. Thank you.

Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 26/10/2015 - 08:30

In reply to by Faisal09

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Hello Faisal,

This is actually quite common. It might be useful to think of the antecedent going next the clause it represents, as a clause can include related phrases such as the prepositional phrase 'in Germany'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Katarina128 on Thu, 24/09/2015 - 03:42

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Hello, I found here "When whom or which have a preposition". I wasn't sure why did you use "have" and google for an answer. I found this: With a compound subject, the general rule is: If it uses "and", then clearly it's plural, so you should use a plural verb. If it uses "or", then the number of the verb should match the number of the LAST item in the list. For example: Either Bob or Fred has the answer. Either Bob or the Thompson twins have the answer. Either the Thompson twins or Bob has the answer. But it doesn't suit still. Can you please explain me the use of "to have" in those "or" situations? Thanks in advance! Katarina

Submitted by John Murray on Fri, 18/09/2015 - 17:19

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Hi again, I'm working through all you material because I am rusty on my grammar and busy with third year linguistics course through the University of South Africa, a distance university in this country. Is the following not what we cal a split infinitive?: 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. I always try to write 'from whom' rather than 'who I inherited from'. Thanks again, blessings.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 19/09/2015 - 13:22

In reply to by John Murray

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Hello John Murray,

A split infinitive is where the 'to' and the base form of the verb are separated. For example:

I like to slowly walk through the woods.

This is not an error in English, and is a perfectly correct form. Some prescriptive grammarians during the neo-classical period of English literature attempted to introduce such a rule, but this was never a part of traditional English grammar.

What your examples show is what is sometimes called a hanging preposition. This is also an entirely artificial rule of English grammar; there is nothing wrong with a so-called hanging preposition. If we attempt to avoid using this form then we end up with highly unnatural sentences.

Churchill, supposedly, denounced this rule by saying 'This is the sort of English up with which I will not put' - demonstrating the kind of absurd sentence to which this kind of rule leads.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by abru on Tue, 01/09/2015 - 08:52

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That's a song ............... reminds me of my youth. isn't this a relative clause? plse explain

Submitted by Patrickus on Mon, 17/08/2015 - 08:47

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Dear teachers, Why in the question #4, it's not allowed to use " which or that"? While for my little thinking it seems like both can work. Kindly assist and explain for me. Best regrds, Patrickus

Hello Patrickus,

Only 'which' (and not 'that') is possible here because it introduces a non-restrictive relative clause (adding extra information); in such relative clauses 'that' cannot be used.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by tameme 86 on Sun, 09/08/2015 - 19:40

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Hello everybody..thank u very much for this great program.. I have a question ..when we can use that instead of which and when we can't?

Submitted by Narendra Nishadraj on Sun, 02/08/2015 - 14:53

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Hello British Council, I've a confusion that is from exercise question no. 4. He tore up the photograph, * upset me. and the answer is "which", but why I can't use "that". Please clarify.

Hello Narendra Nishadraj,

This is an example of a non-defining relative clause, which tells us more about a person or thing but does not define which person or thing we are talking about. The rule is one the page:

• to tell us more about a person or thing:

My mother, who was born overseas, has always been a great traveller.
Lord Thompson, who is 76, has just retired.
We had fish and chips, which is my favourite meal.

But we do not use that as a subject in this kind of relative clause.

 

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by innocentashish420 on Sun, 26/07/2015 - 13:58

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Q1 he is the man who I know has helped my son in the final exam. he is the man who I knew has helped my son in the final exam. he is the man who I have known has helped my son in the final exam. ARE these sentences grammatically correct? If yes, what is the difference in the contexts in which these should be used or they can be used interchangeably. Q2 SIR, in English language a sentence with same grammatical structure can be used for different meanings in different contexts?? Is it true?? If yes why is it so?? is it same like a word is used for different meanings??

Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 27/07/2015 - 14:29

In reply to by innocentashish420

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Hello innocentashish420,

I have answered this question already on this page. Please do not post the same question more than once - it only slows the process of answering down and makes the site less useful to others.

In answer to your second question, meaning is often context-dependent, but this is not only a feature of English. Any language which has idiomatic, metaphorical and ironic meaning (to my knowledge, this means all languages) has context-dependent meaning. It may be more prevalent in English than in your language, of course.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglsh Team

Submitted by Jilibili on Sun, 12/07/2015 - 09:56

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Hello Dear Teachers, I'm an EFL student. I have a question. In the following Questions and answers, which answer is correct?(a or b). Is the other one incorrect or less appropriate? 1. Who is she? a. She's Sally. (Telling her name) b. She's my cousin.(Telling her function) 2. Who are you? a. I'm Tom. b. I'm your friend. 3. Who are you? a. We are Ben and Bob. b. We are your classmates. Thanks in advance.

Hello Jilibili,

We don't generally like to do users' homework – if that's what this is – we ourselves are teachers, after all! In any case, both answers could be correct for all of these questions – it really depends on what you mean and what the context is.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aye Thinzar Kyaw on Tue, 07/07/2015 - 03:38

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Hello teachers, I am confused of using comma between relative pronouns and subjects, objects of the sentences. I found that there is a comma in some sentences but not in others. I would like to know clearly. Thanks and Regards, Aye

Hello Aye,

We use commas in non-defining relative clauses but not in defining relative clauses.

You can find more information on each of these herehere and here.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by adtyagrwl3 on Sun, 05/07/2015 - 10:02

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Hello Sir, In the exercise there is this sentence: "Where is the girl WHICH/THAT is selling the ice-cream" Could you please tell me why we cannot use WHO in this sentence in place of WHICH/THAT? Thank you!

Hello adtyagrwl3,

The correct answer (which you can see if you click 'Submit' or 'Finish') is 'who or that', not 'which or that'. I've checked the exercise and I'm not sure why you think 'which or that' is correct.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Daan Brocatus on Fri, 26/06/2015 - 17:19

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Hello, I tried to make the exercises correctly, but I made a mistake of some kind at question 6, can anyone please explain why I can't use 'that' in the sentence? (sentence: She wrote a best-selling book, the name of ....... I've completely forgotten. thank you!

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 27/06/2015 - 06:47

In reply to by Daan Brocatus

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Hello Daan Brocatus,

'The name of which' is another way of saying 'whose' and we do not use 'that' in this phrase. We do not use 'that' in any phrases of this type:

The person of whom not *The person of that*

The person of which not *The place of that*

The time of which not *The time of that*

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by AmirELT on Thu, 18/06/2015 - 20:08

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Hello to all, May I ask a quick question at the risk of sounding stupid? Today I encountered a confusing situation and that is why I need a little help. I know the following sentence is totally true with no awkward issue: She read the book which you gave her. However, I don't know why I think this sentence could also be true ( But I am well aware it is absolutely unusual ). Only syntactically, is this one also correct? She read the book which you gave it to her. Thanks

Hello AmirEs,

As you say, the first sentence is fine. The second sentence, however, is not correct. To make it correct, we need to remove the 'it':

She read the book which you gave her.

In this sentence 'which' is the object of 'gave'. If we try to add 'it' then we have another object referring to the same thing, which is not necessary and is not correct. So, the reason the sentence is wrong is because it has two words referring to the same object of one verb in the same sentence.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by hrnmno on Wed, 17/06/2015 - 10:52

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Hello there, I don't understand when to use "that" and when to use "which"! would anyone be able to explain? thank you,

Hello hrnmno,

'That' is used for people and things. 'Which' is used only for things.

'That' is used only in defining relative clauses.

'Which can be used in both defining and non-defining relative clauses.

You can find out more about relative clauses here, here and here.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Penguin84 on Wed, 17/06/2015 - 08:18

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Hello, I have a question about relative pronouns, and wondering if you could help. 1. I don't know the reason for which he was angry. 2. I don't know the reason why he was angry. 3. I don't know the reason which he was angry for. #1 and #2 sound natural and gramatically correct to me. How about #3? Are there any grammar problems with that one? Could you provide and explanation? Thank you very much for your help!

Hello Penguin,

Some argue that 'reason' shouldn't be followed by 'why' but rather 'that' (e.g. 'the reason that he was angry...') but the truth is that sentences like 2 are very common. Does my version with 'that' sound more natural to you? If yes, that might be the reason that 3 sounds odd to you, since it uses 'which' instead of 'that'. Sentence 1 is indeed grammatically correct, though a bit awkward, especially outside very formal situations. I agree that 3 sounds a bit odd, but aside from what the note about 'that' vs 'which' above, there is no grammatical error as far as I can tell - it's more a question of a form that's not typically used.

Personally, I'd just say 'I don't know why he was angry'!

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aquila85 on Tue, 05/05/2015 - 09:40

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Hi... I'm so confused :S I always have had problem with relative pronouns :(

Submitted by erpankaj on Mon, 13/04/2015 - 19:53

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please explain for question no 5.

Hello erpankaj,

'Children' are people and so we need to use 'who' rather than 'which'. In the phrase 'all of...' we need to use an object form, so 'whom' is correct. We cannot use 'that' as a relative pronoun in this phrase; the phrase 'all of that' is used to mean 'all of those things just mentioned'.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jasperwoodroe on Tue, 07/04/2015 - 00:43

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Please can you tell me why we can say: 'This is the house where I lived last year' and it's correct but we can't say: 'This is the villa where we rented last year.'

Hello Jasper,

As a relative pronoun, 'where' is used in the same way as a preposition + 'which'. You can say 'This is the house in which I lived ...' but 'This is the villa *in which we rented ...' is not grammatical because there is no preposition indicating an adverbial of location here - one would say 'This is the villa that we rented last year'.

Note that 'live' is an intransitive verb, often followed by an adverbial of location, whereas 'rent' is a transitive verb - that is why 'that' or 'which' are the relative pronouns that would most naturally go with it.

Hope this helps.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by neha_sri on Fri, 27/03/2015 - 09:26

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Hi peter, first of all thank you,your second post made me understand the difference between that two sentences. I like people working hard. this means people sometimes work hard not all the time.right?

Submitted by neha_sri on Fri, 27/03/2015 - 06:20

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Hi Peter M! I still don't understand the second sentence.when we talk about an action, we use gerund.here 'crying' is a participle which specifies 'boy'.if we use adjective clause, the sentence would be: people do not like the boy who cries.

Hi neha_sri,

The forms in these sentences are not gerunds: a gerund is a noun formed from a verb, and neither sentence is an example of that. I think the terminology here is not particularly helpful to you, and I would suggest that you focus on on the meaning rather than the names of the forms.

As I said in the previous answer, the two original sentences have different meanings and they are as I described: one talks about a boy crying now (at the moment of speaking); the other talks about a boy who cries sometimes and about the negative reaction when he does so.

Your sentence here has another - third - meaning:

People do not like the boy who cries - this tells us that there are various boys and that the unpopular boy is the one who cries (unlike the other boys, who do not cry). It is an example of a defining relative clause, telling us which boy is being referred to.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you. Each sentence is correct, but each has a different meaning.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by neha_sri on Thu, 26/03/2015 - 13:40

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Hi! I am studing english in british council ,new delhi.I asked a question to my teacher and she could not answer it. my query is, what is the difference between the two below sentences? people do not like crying boy. people do not like boy crying. Here in the second sentence crying is participle. Thanks!

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 26/03/2015 - 20:10

In reply to by neha_sri

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Hi neha_sri,

There is a slight difference in meaning here.

People do not like the crying boy. - here, 'crying' is an adjective and describes the boy; the sentence means something like 'People do not like the boy who is crying'. [i.e. he is crying now]

People do not like the boy crying. - here, the meaning is different; the sentence means something like 'People do not like it when the boy cries'. [i.e. he does not cry all the time, but when he does people do not like it]

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team