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)

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.

Average

Submitted by Niania on Fri, 07/02/2020 - 11:52

Hi, Can you tell me please why there should not be a comma in the following sentence (after the word range): Everest is part of a mountain range which stretches across the Himalayas. Thanks!

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 08/02/2020 - 07:46

Hello Niania,

The relative clause beginning which stretches... is a defining relative clause. It does not only add extra information to the sentence but actually defines the noun before it. In other words, it answers the question 'Which range?'

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by EmiiR on Fri, 07/02/2020 - 03:32

Hello teachers, I have a doubt with when In the sentence: "He started playing in the team when he was only 19", is "when he was only 19" a relative clause? if not, why? Thanks!

Hello EmiiR,

In this sentence, when is a subordinating conjunction. It introduces a dependent clause which has an adverbial function, giving us more information about the action in the main clause.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Kaisoo93 on Sun, 19/01/2020 - 07:22

Hello Teachers, Can 'which' replace 'and' also? Are 4 of the following sentences correct? 1) Poor students being prevented from entering university excludes a large proportion of society and is discriminatory and can be avoided by getting rid of tuition fees. 2) Poor students being prevented from entering university excludes a large proportion of society and is discriminatory which can be avoided by getting rid of tuition fees. 3) Poor students being prevented from entering university excludes a large proportion of society which is discriminatory and can be avoided by getting rid of tuition fees 4) Poor students being prevented from entering university excludes a large proportion of society which is discriminatory can be avoided by getting rid of tuition fees. Thank you

Hello Kaisoo93

The first three could be correct, though I'd choose sentence 3 and put a comma after 'society'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by zhouyoumin on Wed, 18/12/2019 - 11:37

Hello! Someone asked me which of these sentences is correct: For you who dare to dream. For you who dares to dream. For you who are bold. For you who is bold. I thought it should depend on whether 'you' referred to one or many people. But when I looked for examples on this sentence pattern, I only got more confused! What if the sentence started with "It is you..."? It is you who dare to dream. It is you who dares to dream. It is you who are wrong. It is you who is wrong. Would really appreciate some tips on how to figure these out. Thanks!

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 19/12/2019 - 07:27

Hello zhouyoumin,

You are correct that the question is whether or not 'you' refers to many people or one person.

The pattern with 'It is...' does not change this. 'It is...' here creates a cleft sentence and can be used with both singular and plural nouns:

It is this person who I need to meet.

It is these people who I need to meet.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for your reply, Peter. I enjoyed reading all the examples on cleft sentences in the link. Could you help clarify one more thing, please? Back to this example with the verb 'be'. It is you who are wrong. It is you who is wrong. Which is correct? Do we say 'It is you who are wrong.' because the pronoun 'you' takes a plural verb ==> are Or would it be better to say 'It is you who is wrong." because 'you' is a singular subject? In this example (https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/cleft-sentence): 'You stole the money' can be rewritten as ‘It was you who stole the money'. So, would it mean that 'You are wrong' should be rewritten as 'It is you who are wrong'?

Hello again zhouyoumin,

I have heard both forms used in modern English. My own preference is for 'is', which keeps 'who' as a third-person form. For example, all of these sound perfectly fine to me:

It is Paul who is in charge here.

It is you who is in charge here.

It is I who is in charge here.

However, a sentence like this one sounds very unnatural to me:

It is I who am in charge here.

The example 'It was you who stole the money' does not help in any way because 'stole' is a past form, and so has no marker for person. However, you could say 'It is you who steals the money'.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Gospodincoek on Tue, 10/12/2019 - 22:21

Hello,I had a test today and i'm not sure about one question: Keisha is the youngest of her 3 sisters.She was born in 1995. Please answer me as fast as possible.

Hello Gospodincoek,

We'll be happy to give you some advice but I can't see what your question is. What did you have to do in the test?

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Darshanie Ratnawalli on Thu, 05/12/2019 - 08:07

There has been a bit of a commotion in Sri Lanka about the use of a relative clause in Britain. In the Conservative Party's election manifesto, a relative clause beginning with 'where' has been used after a list of words, separated by a comma from the last word of the list. In Sri Lanka, the understanding is that the relative clause in this case refers to the whole list, though according to the Conservative Party, the relative clause only applies to the last word in the list. The sentence is- "We will continue to support international initiatives to achieve reconciliation, stability and justice across the world, and in the former conflict zones such as Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, where we maintain our support for a two-state solution." Now, what is the grammar rule, which if taught in SL schools, would have helped to avoid the misunderstanding?

Hello Darshanie Ratnawalli,

In my opinion, the sentence is ambiguous. The relative clause refers to the item preceding it, but this could be the entire list ("the former conflict zones such as Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East") or it could be only the final item ("the Middle East").

Because the sentence is ambiguous, the only way to identify the referent would be to check other sources to confirm party policy.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Fleep on Sat, 30/11/2019 - 18:31

Former English instructor here. I came across a headline this morning on a major news organization and cringed at the error on the front webpage main article of the day. It needs the word "what" inserted. I also want to identify the grammar structure and thought at first it was a relative pronoun. However, after perusing the standard list of relative pronouns, I thought secondly that it was missing an object pronoun....But I don't know if that is right either. In the below headline, if we insert "what" between "in" and "he", what grammar tool/structure is "what"? I cannot upload a simple screen shot here so I will copy the headline and provide a link to CNN. https://------------------------------------------------------------------------ "The President must decide whether to legitimize the impeachment inquiry by allowing his lawyers to participate or refuse to take part in [WHAT] he says is a sham"

Hello Fleep,

You are quite correct that there is an error in the sentence. In fact, I would say that there is a second error. In the sentence as written the refusal relates to the lawyers, whereas it should relate to the President:

...to legitimize the impeachment inquiry by allowing his lawyers to participate or refuse to take part... [the lawyers participate or refuse]

...to legitimize the impeachment inquiry by allowing his lawyers to participate or refusing to take part... [the President allows or refuses]

As far as the structure goes, what he says is a sham is a relative clause. This type of relative clause is a free relative clause, that is to say it is a relative clause which does not refer directly back to an element in the sentence.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_clause#Bound_and_free

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Ah yes there are two errors. And first time I heard of "free" relative clauses. Thanks.

Submitted by Boaz on Fri, 15/11/2019 - 14:29

I don’t understand whom

Hello Boaz

I'll explain it in a little more detail for you to see if that helps. 'whom' is only used when the person is talks about is the object of a verb. For example, in the sentence 'This is George, whom you met at our house last year', 'whom' is the object of the verb 'met'.

In contrast, in the sentence 'George is the man who is sitting near the door', 'who' is the subject of the verb 'is sitting'.

One other important detail is that nowadays it's very common for people to say 'who' instead of 'whom'. In other words, the first sentence could also be 'This is George, who you met at our house last year' and still be correct.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sumanasc on Wed, 13/11/2019 - 12:26

Hello Use "Who' and join the two sentences. The boy came to the class. He is a newcomer. a. The boy who came to the class is a newcomer. b.The boy came to the class who is a newcomer. Please let me know which one is correct and why. Many Thanks Christine

Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 15/11/2019 - 08:09

Hello Christine,

The first sentence (a) is correct. The relative clause (beginning with the relative pronoun 'who') should follow the noun which it describes. Here, that noun is 'The boy'.

The second sentence separates the relative pronoun from its referent, and this is the mistake in the sentence.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Quynh Nhu on Tue, 12/11/2019 - 15:54

Dear sir, Can I ask what is the correct answer for this question: "I can’t find the files ……………I saved all the important information. A.WHERE B.WHICH C.WHY D.WHEN My friend chose B because he said "which" modifies for things (in this case: "the files"). In my opinion, which is a right answer only in 2 cases. First, "I can’t find the files which I saved "(which plays a role as a object of verb "saved" ). Second, I can’t find the files in which/where I saved all the important information (which plays as a object of prep "in"). So the answer must be A. Please clarify it to me.. Thankyou so much.

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Fri, 15/11/2019 - 08:59

In reply to by Quynh Nhu

Hello Quynh Nhu

I agree with your answer -- A is the only possibility here, though B would be correct if it were 'in which' or if 'in' was added after 'information'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jpreston on Sat, 09/11/2019 - 14:57

Hello I'm a newbie to Grammar. How would you explain past-tense to an object - so... Yesterday I was... then referring to a park bench... a local homeless man usually occupied, either sitting or lying down, but today it was empty. How would you write today it was empty, whilst keeping past tense? Thanks.

Hello jpreston,

I'm afraid I don't understand your question. The phrase 'today it was empty' is perfectly fine and uses a past tense. You seem to be asking how you would change something which does not need changing to fit your criteria.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by loko99 on Mon, 04/11/2019 - 13:18

You use commas, whenever you see Spiderman in the TV. Its important that it has to be Spiderman and not any other hero. Loko

Submitted by orian on Wed, 30/10/2019 - 19:19

Hello, Is it right to say that relative pronouns act like an adjective, hence, we can find it always after the noun\subject they describe in a sentence?

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 31/10/2019 - 08:33

Hello orian,

It's not the relative pronoun which acts as an adjective, but rather the whole of the relative clause. Relative clauses can describe the nouns which precede them, or can describe the whole sentence:

The kettle, which was an old antique, made a loud whistling sound.

The relative clause describes 'kettle'.

We put the relative clause immediately after the noun, as you say.

The kettle began to melt, which none of us had expected!

The relative clause describes the whole sentence, giving the speaker's reaction to it.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Dandi on Mon, 21/10/2019 - 15:33

Hi, Great, but what about commas? When we must write it? Please write in the simplest way.

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Tue, 22/10/2019 - 06:11

Hello Dandi

You can find an explanation of when to use commas on this Oxford Dictionary page.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Didi on Wed, 16/10/2019 - 23:51

Hi I would like to make clear that in all sentences where I have to fill "who" or "which" I can replace by "that" Or there are cases where I can only use "that" Thank u

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Thu, 17/10/2019 - 06:41

Hello Didi

I'm afraid it's not quite that simple. For one thing, 'who' is not always a relative pronoun (e.g. 'Who invented the telephone?). Also, in the first kind of relative clauses explained above -- these are sometimes called 'defining relative clauses' -- 'who' can always be replaced by 'that', though I would recommend you learn and practise both. But in the second kind of relative clauses explained above -- these are sometimes called 'non-defining relative clauses' -- only 'who' is correct when we are speaking about a person.

The case is the same for 'which': it is also used in questions (e.g. 'Which film did you see?') and 'that' cannot replace it in non-defining relative clauses, when we use 'which' to give more information -- see for example the sentence 'We had fish and chips, which I always enjoy' above.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Wed, 02/10/2019 - 09:03

Hello. Could you please help me? Which relative pronoun is correct or both? 1- All we want to know is the truth about whom is to blame for this fatal error. 2- All we want to know is the truth about who is to blame for this fatal error. Some books of English say that after prepositions we must use "whom" not "who". I am really confused. Thank you. thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam

It's true that object forms are used after prepositions, but I would suggest using 'who' here. This is because 'who/whom' is a bit of a special case -- 'whom' has mostly disappeared in most informal, and even many formal, situations nowadays.

There's also the fact that there are situations where both forms are possible. In this case, 'who' or 'whom' is not simply the object of 'about' -- instead it is the head of the phrase 'who/whom is to blame', and it is this phrase that is the object of 'about'. Whether it's correct to use 'who' or 'whom' at the head of such a phrase is a question of style as far as I know.

Hope this helps.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Klecia on Mon, 16/09/2019 - 11:05

Greetings, in the relative pronouns 6, example 6, shouldn't it be "after" not "from"? Doesn't it state that the poor grandma literally passed on the eyes? Regards

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Mon, 16/09/2019 - 22:21

Hello Klecia

Perhaps in a very specific context this would express what you mean, but in general it is not literal but rather figurative. 'after' would not be correct as a substitute for 'from', but perhaps you're thinking of the phrasal verb 'to take after', which means that a person is similar to another one, usually family, e.g. 'When people see my grandmother's green eyes, they say I take after her'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Goktug123 on Thu, 12/09/2019 - 19:46

Hello Team! I have a question. Which one is true? "Please clarify why it is." or "Please clarify why it is being" Thank you for kind help!

Hello Goktung123,

We would not use 'being' in this sentence. The correct form of the two is the first one.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ngeata on Mon, 02/09/2019 - 08:47

Hello! Can you please tell me if the sentence below is correct? "For all of you who were and who are my sunshine".

Hello Ngeata,

The sentence is correct grammatically.

Generally, we don't provide a checking or correction service on LearnEnglish. We are a small team and there is a very large number of users on the site, so it's simply not possible for us to do this for everyone.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much! I didn't know how to phrase my question, so I wrote the sentence itself. Is there a rule on singular and plural verbs with "who"? I have often heard phrases like "For those of you, who don't know..." and such, so I thought that the verb should be suitable for something that the "who" refers to. But my English teacher said to me that the verbs in my phrase should be singular. My Grammarly app told me that both options are correct, so I was confused. I couldn't find a rule for that, this topic is the closest I could find. In the comment section I found some similar questions, but still asked for you opinion, just to be sure. Thank you for the help!

Submitted by Hayatullah on Thu, 22/08/2019 - 16:48

What is the main difference between adjective clause and relative clause? Our teacher told us that it has difference?

Hello Hayatullah,

In most grammatical descriptions of English relative clause and adjectival clause are alternative names for the same thing: a dependent clause which describes a noun or noun phrase.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by giangphan on Sat, 17/08/2019 - 05:38

1. There are several different credit types you may have on your account depending on certain actions you perform on the website. 2. Pay in many while-collar job has been stagnating relative to inflation. Why we use "depending" and "relative" in these sentences? are they reduced relative clauses? Thank you in advanced.

Submitted by Risa warysha on Thu, 01/08/2019 - 03:46

Hi Sir, Is my sentence correct? The era in which people spend most of their time playing gadget is the dangerous era for our children. Can I use 'when' instead of 'in which'? Are my words appropriate in the case? Thank you,sir

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Thu, 01/08/2019 - 08:04

In reply to by Risa warysha

Hello Risa warysha

Yes, it's correct to use 'when' instead of 'in which' here, though personally I would use 'in which' -- it just sounds better to me. But 'when' is fine.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by redream on Thu, 25/07/2019 - 11:27

Hello. "the place which you can't go is not yours" "the place which you can't go doesn't belong you" "the place what you can't go is not yours" Are there some problems with these sentences? Could you comment their meanings and as grammars, please? Or May you offer some different sentences near their meanings? Thank you very much. Kind Regards..

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Fri, 26/07/2019 - 00:23

Hello redream

I wouldn't use the word 'which' in either of the first two sentences and in the second one the word 'to' needs to be used before 'you'. 'what' is not correct in the third sentence.

I'm afraid we don't normally provide detailed explanations of texts that don't come from our site, as it takes quite a lot of time to do it well. If you have a more specific question, please free to ask us, however.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Kieu123 on Sat, 22/06/2019 - 15:49