Relative pronouns and relative clauses

Learn about relative pronouns and relative clauses and do the exercises to practise using them.

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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Profile picture for user Kirk

Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 17/02/2021 - 07:13

In reply to by Isa H. Sedeto

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Hello Isa,

'whose' always includes the idea of possession, and usually the possessor is a person, animal or organisation (which is composed of people).

'which', on the other hand, refers to an object or idea, but doesn't include the idea of possession or a person that possesses something.

Does that help? If you have a specific sentence you would like to ask us about, please feel free to do that.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by lmho on Thu, 04/02/2021 - 15:37

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Hello, thanks for the content! I don't know whether this has been stated before: I just wanted to let you know that Lagos isn't the capital of Nigeria (task 3).
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Submitted by Kirk on Fri, 05/02/2021 - 08:39

In reply to by lmho

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Hello Imho,

Thanks very much for telling us about this mistake! I've just fixed it, though it may take a few hours for the change to appear on the site.

Best wishes,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ClaireUB78 on Fri, 15/01/2021 - 09:27

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Hello Peter M. Thank you very much for clarifying that for me!

Submitted by ClaireUB78 on Wed, 13/01/2021 - 11:31

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Hello, I am doing activities using relative pronouns and linking expressions. There is an exercise that I have to tick the ones that are correct and replace the relative pronoun in those that are wrong. "It was not until I was seventeen that I started writing down all what happened to me every day." I know that "what happened" is wrong and I should replace it with "that happened" but I´m not sure why, it just sounds right to me. I mean why can´t it be replaced with "which" as we use that relative pronoun for things also. Please help.
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Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 14/01/2021 - 08:12

In reply to by ClaireUB78

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Hello ClaireUB78,

'What' is not used in relative clauses in English. You can use the relative pronouns who (whom), which and that.

After 'all' we use that rather than who or which in modern English. The use of who or which is not ungrammatical but it sounds archaic to the modern ear.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Roses on Fri, 08/01/2021 - 10:53

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Someone told me that there is no such thing as a noun clause. Is that true? What I had forgotten was that I had a test today Is “what I had forgotten” a noun phrase or a noun clause in the sentence above Someone told me it was a noun phrase but I don’t believe that because it’s said everywhere on the internet that a noun phrase does not have a subject and verb pairing Please help me understand this

Submitted by Roses on Wed, 06/01/2021 - 07:32

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I have another question about this other sentence: They may be coming sooner than we expected Someone told me that the word ‘be’ in this sentence was a bare infinitive Or is the word ‘be’ in this sentence a helping verb? Is the word ‘coming’ in this sentence a verbal? What tense is this sentence in? I think it’s in progressive tense but it doesn’t match up with how any of the progressive tenses are formed so I’m a bit confused. I already know that ‘may’ is a modal verb and that ‘may be coming’ is suppose to be a verb phrase

Hello Roses,

The modal verb 'may' is followed by an infinitive without 'to', but there are different forms of the infinitive. Here, you have a continuous infinitive formed with be + verb-ing.

 

There are many infinitive forms. For example:

He may come... > infinitive

He may be coming... > continuous infinitive

He may have come... > perfect infinitive

He may be stopped... > passive infintive

He may have been stopped... > perfect passive infinitive

He may have been being stopped... > perfect passive continuous infinitive

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by Roses on Wed, 06/01/2021 - 02:51

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All that was left was a triangular piece of metal Why is it possible to have two verbs here? Is one “was” a verbal? Is there two clauses here?

Hello Roses,

'All that was left' is the subject of the sentence. In terms of structure it contains a relative clause and is similar to this:

The man who worked at the bank was very nice.

In this sentence 'The man' is a noun phrase and 'who worked at the bank' is a relative clause describing the noun phrase.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

So is “All was a triangular piece of metal” an independent clause? and is there a limit to how many questions I can ask? and thank you for helping me

Hello Roses,

No, you can't use 'all' in that way. It can only be part of a larger subject: all I could see was... / all we had was... / all we need is... etc.

 

We don't limit the number of questions a person asks on the site, but we try to provide answers to as many users as we can, so we usually only answer one question from any particular user on any particular day. In other words, if you ask multiple questions then you might have to wait a little longer for your answer.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Is a relative clause and subordinate clause the same thing? Is “that was left” a subordinate clause? Someone told me that “All that was left” was a noun phrase is that true? Is the part “was a triangular piece of metal” a verb phrase? Is a main verb and finite verb the same thing?

Hello Roses,

Relative clauses are one kind of subordinate clause; there are other kinds.

 

In your example 'all' is a pronoun and 'that was left' is a relative clause describing it; 'all that was left' is a noun phrase functioning as the subject of the sentence.

 

'...was a triangular piece of metal' is a verb phrase consisting of a verb with its complement.

 

The term 'finite verb' is used to describe those verb forms which has a subject and can be used to form an independent clause. In other words, finite verbs are verb forms other than the infinitive, participles and gerunds.

'Main verb' is a descriptive term used to contrast with auxiliary verbs.

 

I hope those answers clarify it for you. Please note that this is a site focused on language learning and use rather than linguistic analysis. Where analysing the language in this way helps with language learning we're happy to do it, but we try to avoid an overly technical focus on terminology and sentence analysis for the most part.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Shortie Dork on Sun, 27/12/2020 - 14:13

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Hello i want to ask Which is correct: - I was invited by the professor who / whom i met at the conference
Hi , According to me it should be: I was invited by the professor whom i met at the conference.

Hello Shortie Dork,

Both are grammatically possible.

The relative pronoun is the object of the verb 'met', so it is possible to use whom. However, use of whom is disappearing in modern English other than when it directly follows a preposition (to whom, for whom etc), so who is the more common option.

 

You can read more about this topic on this page;

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/relative-pronouns-and-relative-clauses

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Shoaib50 on Sat, 26/12/2020 - 10:52

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Hi Team, Please need your comments on following sentences. 1. The man kept a bag under the table which had four curved legs. 2. The man kept a bag under the table. This had four curved legs. which is correct and why ?
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Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 26/12/2020 - 16:23

In reply to by Shoaib50

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Hello Shoaib50,

Both sentences are grammatically correct. It's a little unusual, though, to use the word 'this' (in 2). I would recommend something like 'The man kept a bag under the table with four curved legs', but 1 is also fine.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

thank you so much . One more please. The man kept bag under the table. In above example table is object of preposition. lets assume if i want to tell about bag then how can we do it. My teacher told me if you use relative pronoun then it must close its antecedent, so how can we write ? Please also mention can we describe object of preposition with relative pronoun. example. My uncle lives in Germany whom i borrowed money to.
sorry Correction My uncle lives in Germany whom i borrowed money from.

Hello again Shoaib50,

It's grammatically possible to say something like 'The man kept his bag, which was red, under the table'. I wouldn't use a relative clause after 'under the table' to refer to the bag, because it could be difficult to know what its antecedent is.

The last sentence you ask about is not grammatically correct. You'd have to put the relative clause closer to the antecedent ('My uncle, who I borrowed money from, lives in Germany.').

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Yigitcan on Sat, 28/11/2020 - 18:20

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Hello team, I want to ask two questions 1-'' A tablet is a gadget which/that/who is used by many people. '' Why '' who''is in the possible answers?' 'Who'for people. 2-' 'The west of London is where theatre actors dream of performing.' 'Is this sentence true? because ''where''must after the noun. Also Thank you, site is very useful. I have been improving my English.

Hello Yigitcan,

'Who' is not correct in your first example. I'm not sure where the question is from, but the person who wrote the key clearly made a mistake. If the question is from our site then please let us know where it is so that we can correct the error.

'Where' is correct in your second example. The meaning is similar to 'the place in which'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by camillemw on Wed, 21/10/2020 - 08:29

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hello ! Is the following sentence correct ? The people whom he remembers wore brightly coloured clothes. thank you !
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Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 21/10/2020 - 10:07

In reply to by camillemw

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Hello camillemw,

Yes, it is correct, though most people just say 'The people he remembers' or 'The people who he remembers'. The relative pronoun is often omitted when it's the object of a verb in the relative clause.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmeds230 on Tue, 20/10/2020 - 18:50

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Hello! -We didn't know to "where" or "which" she went after she left. >Which is correct to choose? "Where" or "which"?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 21/10/2020 - 08:49

In reply to by Ahmeds230

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Hello Ahmeds230,

You can use 'where' provided you don't use 'to':

We didn't know where she went.

When you use 'to', you need to use a pronoun such as 'which', but you need to add more information:

We didn't know which place she went to. [more common]

We didn't know to which place she went. [less common]

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your answer! Just to clarify my question, here's the full sentence: -We didn't know to ... she went after she left home. > I realize we can't use "where" here because there is "to" but it also doesn't make sense to me using "where" without a place being mentioned so...is the question wrong, or is it "which" the right choice here?

Hello Ahmeds230,

As I said, after the preposition 'to' you need a pronoun rather than the adverb 'where', so that option is not possible.

'Which' can follow a preposition, but it is a pronoun which needs a referent. In other words, there must be a context which identifies the places referred to by 'which'. For example:

There were two options: the warehouse or the office, but we didn't know to which she went after she left home.

Without a context like this, I would say that 'which' does not make sense.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Thank you for clarifying this to me, but as a last effort to make sense of this sentence: -Would "whom" work in that sentence instead? >We didn't know to "whom" she went after she left home. Is that sentence correct, or still wouldn't make sense with "whom"?

Hello again Ahmeds230,

I'm afriad I don't know which example you are referring to now as there have been several different versions of the sentence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Sorry for the confusion, I meant the first sentence: >We didn't know to "whose" she went after she left home. Does "whose" work fine in that sentence or is it only okay with "whom"?

Hello again Ahmeds230,

After a preposition ('to') you need to use an object. In this case, that means either a pronoun ('whom') or a noun. You could say 'whose house', for example, but not 'whose' on its own.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Hello Ahmeds230,

Yes, that sentence is fine. Now you are talking about a person and using a relative pronoun, rather than a relative adverb like where. As the pronoun is the object of a preposition (to), whom is correct.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Shortie Dork on Tue, 20/10/2020 - 13:52

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Hello ... I am sure that we use "whose" in the following sentence : The man whose car was stolen was very upset . But for some reason my nephew's english teacher says that "whom" is the correct answer . Can you please help? Do we use "whose" or "whom" ???
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Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 21/10/2020 - 08:16

In reply to by Shortie Dork

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Hello Shortie Dork,

The correct form here is 'whose'.

It is possible to use 'whom' in a relative clause when the pronoun is the object. However, in this example 'whose' is not a pronoun but an adjective modifying the noun 'car'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Mon, 12/10/2020 - 10:29

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Hello. Is the following sentence correct using "whom"? - It's hard to make a prediction about whom will win the match. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

We would use 'who' in this case, not whom.

Prepositions are followed by objects, which would suggest that the object pronoun is possible here. However, in this sentence the entire clause ['who will win the match'] is the object rather than the pronoun. Within the clause, the pronoun is the subject of the verb, so 'who' is used.

 

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Thu, 08/10/2020 - 10:29

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Hello. Could you please tell me the difference between the following sentences? 1- I don't know the person who is at the door. 2- I don't know who the person is at the door. 3- I don't know who is the person at the door. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

They all mean the same thing. The word order in 3 is not correct in standard British English, but anyone would understand it and I expect you would hear many non-native speakers use this form.

If I were saying this, I'd probably say 'I don't know who the person at the door is' or 'I don't know who's at the door'.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by quickspot on Wed, 07/10/2020 - 07:43

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Hello, Can the pronoun which be used for people ? As in this statement. I do not remember which one I met first. Thanks

Hello quickspot,

That sentence is fine.

Generally, we use who when we are talking about people and which when we are talking about things. However, when we use 'one' we do not use who:

I do not remember who I met first.

I do not remember which one I met first.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by quickspot on Tue, 06/10/2020 - 16:47

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Hello. I have read these 2 sentences in a grammar book. The first one to me is NOT complete. What do you call these types of sentences? 1.. The car which was parked downhill. The second sentence is here, 2. There are so many people WHICH we already know, In the 2 sentence we should have who instead of WHICH. What is correct ? Thanks

Hello quickspot,

You are right on both points. 1 is not a complete sentence and in 2, 'which' should not be used.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Mon, 28/09/2020 - 13:30

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Hello. are the following sentences correctly written with commas? 1- The man, whom I borrowed some money from, was helpful. 2- The man, who I borrowed some money from, was helpful. Thank you.