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.

 

Average
Average: 4.5 (173 votes)

Hello Sandy Nguyen,

Here the correct option is 'which'. We use 'which' when giving more information. The relative clause tells us more about 'my relationship with Jonathan'.

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by AnaSL on Thu, 16/03/2023 - 22:12

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Good evening!
I was teaching my FCE students relative clauses and came across an exercise where they had to combine sentences. This was the sentence: Unfortunately, the market has closed down. I buy my food from here. The teacher's book answer key: Unfortunately, the market, which I buy my food from, has closed down. Most of my students wrote where instead of which. Can both be correct? Thanks!

Hi AnaSL,

Yes, it is fine. Another possibility is to leave out "from": Unfortunately, the market, where I buy my food, has closed down. "Where" typically shows the location of an action (in this sentence, it shows the location of "buy my food"). In comparison, in your students' sentence (where I buy my food from), "where" does not show the location of the action, but the giver of the object. Perhaps this is why the answer key suggests using "which", not "where" - but I think your students' answer is fine too!

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Vellerivelleri on Sun, 12/03/2023 - 02:34

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Hello Kirk!
I hope you can help me with my dilemma.
I think that in the sentence:"Emma, who cat belongs to." the relative pronoun "who" cannot be omitted, it just doesn't sound right to me, but I am having hard time finding a rule proving this. While a friend of mine who is learning English too says that it's okay to say "Emma cat belongs to", which sounds wrong to me. Which one is correct? Appreciate your answer

Hello Vellerivelleri,

The example you provide is not a complete sentence and is not grammatical even as it stands. The full and correct sentence could be something like this:

Emma, who the cat belongs to, is on holiday.

The relative pronoun 'who' is necessary here as the preposition 'to' requires an object. If you omit 'who' then there is no object within the relative clause.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by misatran on Mon, 27/02/2023 - 03:12

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Hello, I came across the following sentences while I was reading about Relative Clauses.
1. We really love participating in discussions which helps us share our ideas and learn from others.
2. Mr.Minh has created a list of the most useful apps for his classrooms, which is available on his blog.
What does the word "which" in these two sentences refer to? I assume the first "which" refers to "participating in discussions", but I can't find any documents saying a relative pronoun can refer to a gerund like that. And I think the second "which" refers to "a list", but I remember a relative clause has to stand close to the antecedent. So I find it confusing.
Are the two sentences grammatically correct? And are they accurate examples of relative clauses?
Thank you a lot for your help in advance.

Hello misatran,

Sentence 1 is not correct as-is. Either 1) the verb 'helps' should be changed to 'help' so that its antecedent is 'discussions' (a plural subject) or 2) a comma should be put between 'discussions' and 'which' so that the 'which' clause makes a comment on the entire first part of the sentence.

Yes, I agree that sentence 2 could be improved. If it were one of my students, I'd suggest something like 'Mr. Minh has created a list of the most useful apps for his classrooms; this list is available on his blog' or 'See Mr. Minh's blog for his list of the most useful apps for his classrooms'. As it stands, the sentence isn't grammatically incorrect, but it is awkward.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Hello Kirk and LearnEnglish team,

I appreciate your explanation. I’m grateful for your help.

There is only one thing. If the second sentence isn’t grammatically incorrect, the relative pronouns don’t always have to be next to the noun it refers to. They can come after a preposition clause. Do I get this right?

Once again, thank you a lot for your help.

Hello misatran,

That's right, sometimes relative pronouns are not immediately adjacent to their antecedent. But this is generally something people try to avoid, especially in writing.

I wish I could give a clearer-cut answer, but as far as I know the only rule for when it's acceptable for there to be other words between the antecedent and the relative pronoun is that the sentence is not difficult to understand. That's relative, of course, which is why it's generally best to avoid it when possible!

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Hello Kirk and LearnEnglish team,

Thank you so much for your help. Your explanation helps me understand this a lot better. I can't express how grateful I am for what your team has been doing.

All the best,
Misatran

Submitted by howtosay_ on Wed, 15/02/2023 - 09:42

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Hello!

Could you please help me with the following:

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

Lord Thompson, who is 76, has just retired." Is that only with the age (if I've got it correctly) when we can't use "who" or are there any other exceptions?

2, Are the following sentences correct:

They are helping me a lot, for which I'm very grateful.

He said we should live only for our pleasure, with what I strongly disagree.

I'm grateful very much for your constant help and thank you for answering this post beforehand!!!

Hi howtosay_,

Good questions!

1. Use "who" instead of "that" to refer to personal names, e.g. "Lord Thompson" in your example. It's with any information in the relative clause, not only with age.

2. The first sentence is correct. The second one should be "with which" instead of "with what". In both sentences, it's also possible to put the preposition at the end of the sentence: "... helping me a lot, which I'm very grateful for." and "... for our pleasure, which I strongly disagree with."

I hope that helps!

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Khoshal on Fri, 06/01/2023 - 12:50

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Hello Sir,

What’s the difference between object of verb and object of preposition?
In this example (This is George’s brother, with whom I went to school.), whom is the object of with, but can we also say whom is the object of went?

Thanks!
KK

Hello KK,

Yes, 'whom' is the object of 'with' in this case. It's not correct, however, to say that 'whom' is an object of the verb 'went'. For one thing, the verb 'go' is an intransitive verb, which means it does not have an object.

If we simplify this sentence we get something like 'I went to school with George's brother'. 'with George's brother' is a prepositional phrase.

Hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LAN1 on Sun, 02/10/2022 - 07:58

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Hello! Is there anyone kind enough to answer this?
"Apple Pay Later now offers a plan where consumers can make four payments over six weeks."

Why does the writer use the pronoun "where"? I feel like it has to do with "Apple Pay Later" or "plan" but I can't come up with a good explanation about this.

Thanks!

Hello LAN1,

'Where' is an adverbial introducing a clause modifying the noun 'plan'. Adverbials of this kind can usually be replaced with a relative pronoun and a preposition, creating a relative clause:

Apple Pay Later now offers a plan where consumers can make four payments over six weeks.

Apple Pay Later now offers a plan in which / through which consumers can make four payments over six weeks.

 

You can see a few more examples here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_relative_clauses#Adverbials

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Muhammad Fadhil on Tue, 14/06/2022 - 09:00

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May I ask something? actually, I am slightly confused about the combination of two sentences below :
1. I met a woman
2. She can speak six languages

The options if I combine :
1. I met a woman who can speak six language
2. A woman (that) I met can speak six languages

Which is the answer right? 1 or 2?

Hello Muhammad Fadhil,

Both 1 and 2 are grammatically correct, though we'd use them in different situations.

In 1, you are simply reporting that you met such a woman and so is more general. For example, maybe you're telling your friend about what happened at work today.

2 is something you would say in a more specific context -- for example, perhaps your friend was saying it was impossible to know more than three languages. You could respond with sentence 2 to show him he was wrong.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,

I'm confused and need your help. I know relative adverb "where" is used for place, but is the word "company" a place? Ex: The company where I used to work for is now closed? I'm confused because when I searched online they suggest to use "which" or "that".

Thanks in advance for your help.

Hello Metrey,

The place where you work (or study, live etc) is considered a place so where is correct:

The company where I work is...

The university where I study is...

If you want to use 'which' or 'that' then you need to add a preposition:

The company which/that I work in is... [The company in which I work is...]

The university which/that I study in is... [The university in which I work is...]

The forms in parentheses are more formal. Note that you cannot use 'that' when the preposition comes before the relative pronoun (in which not in that).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Maria22 on Tue, 31/05/2022 - 11:40

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(We had fish and chips, which I always enjoy.)
Why in this sentence we cannot leave out the pronoun?

Submitted by Setsukoisalive on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 10:13

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Hello,
I'm confused whether this sentence is correct or not.
"It was my husband who broke the car door."
Is she have two husband If not then why there's no comma.

Hello Setsukoisalive,

Yes, this sentence is correct and is a good example of a cleft sentence.

Are you asking why there is not a comma between 'husband' and 'who'? Although there might be a comma in this position in some languages, in English there is not.

Unless there is some specific situation referred to here, I think most people would assume there is just one husband in this sentence. If this person had more than one husband, it would probably be something like 'It was one of my husbands who broke the door'.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 12/04/2022 - 19:28

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Hello. Could you please help me choose the correct pronoun and why?
- At the corner, there is a supermarket .......... I always buy my things
from.
a- where b- which c- no word d- b & c
Thank you.

Hi Ahmed Imam,

It should be where, because it introduces a clause that shows an action that takes place in the supermarket. It would be which if the relative clause adds description about the supermarket, e.g. There is a supermarket which is very big. / There is a supermarket which I like.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again. I think that "where", "which" and "no word" are correct. I think that we can say:
- I always buy my things from there.
- I always buy my things from it.
- I always buy my things there.
Please help me. Thank you.

Hi Ahmed Imam,

Oh yes! I misread the original sentence, and I didn't see "from" at the end of it. Yes, I agree - I think all options are correct.

Best regards,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ftmh.a1382 on Mon, 04/04/2022 - 13:01

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hello, thank you for your useful information
and can we leave out the noun before where?
for example:
Do you remember The place where we caught the train?
in this example can we say: "do you remember where we caught the train?"

Submitted by Brianchen55688 on Mon, 04/04/2022 - 03:34

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Hello there,

Thank you for this informative grammar lesson.
I have learnt a lot from it.

I was wondering if you could clarify my confusion over the order of relative clauses in some particular situations.

I'd like to ask a question from the exercise of relative pronouns 1.

Meryl Streep is the famous person (who/that/0) I'd most like to meet.

What I have learnt about relative clauses is that they always modify the nearest noun/pronoun.

In the case above, the nearest noun is "person" while the one I'd like to meet should be Meryl Streep.

So I thought the correct answer might be "Meryl Streep, who I'd like to meet, is the famous person"

Could you help clarify my understanding or explain under what condition relative clauses don't necessarily modify the nearest noun?

I look forward to hearing from you
Best

Brian

Hello Brian,

I'm afraid that it's not true that relative pronouns always refer to the noun or pronoun that comes before them. If you change the word 'always' to 'often', then I think the rule works, but there are definitely many different kinds of sentences where the relative pronoun does not immediately follow what it refers to.

Another sentence where this is not true is 'I saw a film last night that you might like'. In this case, it doesn't make any sense for 'that you might like' to refer to 'last night' and so it's generally understood that it refers to 'a film'. What the relative clause refers to is generally going to be what makes the most sense.

In general, it would probably be better for this last sentence to be 'You might like the film (that) I saw last night' -- in this case, of course, the relative clause comes right after its antecedent (the noun that it refers to). If I were writing, I'd probably use this last sentence because it's clearer, but especially when people are speaking they might say something like 'I saw a film last night that you might like', and this is perfectly correct.

It's also correct to say 'Meryl Streep, who I'd like to meet, is a famous person', but it's slightly different. This sentence probably announces a new topic, but the sentence in Task 1 is more appropriate as the answer to a question such as 'What famous person would you like to meet?'

Does that help you make more sense of it?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Vishwjeet.Chauhan on Sun, 27/02/2022 - 20:43

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Hi
Which noun is being described by the relative clause in the following sentences?

1. I met Rebecca in town yesterday, which was a nice surprise.
2. Yesterday, I met Rebecca in town, which was a nice surprise.
3. Yesterday, I met Rebecca in town, which was so congested.
4. Yesterday, I met Rebecca, who is my childhood friend, in town.
5. Yesterday, I met Rebecca in town, who is my childhood friend.
6. I had an uncle in the city, who I inherited a bit of money from.
7. I had an uncle in the city, which is famous for its restaurants.
8. The guards of the royals, xyz (how can I modify guards and how can I modify royals in this sentence)

Hi Vishwjeet.Chauhan,

We try not to answer questions like this, or we might end up doing people's homework for them :) But if you have a question about any of the explanation or exercises on the page above, do let us know.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sourabhg on Wed, 01/12/2021 - 14:46

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I was interested in whom would take over as project manager.
Or
I was interested in who would take over as project manager

Hello souragbhg,

'Who' is correct here. The pronoun is the subject in the relative clause and is not the object of the preposition 'in'; the object of the preposition is the whole relative clause.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by hanluna on Wed, 24/11/2021 - 16:49

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Hello!
I was asked to combine these sentences as one
- My friend plays the guitar. He has just released a CD.
I rewrote them as 'My friend who has just released a CD plays the guitar.'
However, my teacher said that they should be rewritten as 'My friend who plays the guitar has just released a CD.'

Is there any difference between these two sentences? Is my sentence grammatically correct?

Thank you.

Hello hanluna,

Your sentence is grammatically correct and both sentences mean essentially the same thing, but there is a difference between your sentence and your teacher's.

In 'My friend who has just released a CD plays the guitar', the new or important information is that your friend plays the guitar; 'who has just released a CD' tells us which of your friends you are talking about.

In 'My friend who plays the guitar has just released a CD', the new or important information is that your friend has just released a CD; 'who plays the guitar' tells us which of your friends you are talking about.

It's not that your sentence is impossible, but in general it seems more likely that the purpose of a sentence like this is to communicate the release of a CD.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Hassan on Fri, 22/10/2021 - 20:07

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Hello Teachers
this sentence "People who have a lot of money are happy"
can we reduce it to:
"people having a lot of money are happy" or "People with a lot of money are happy"?

Hello Ahmed Hassan,

You can certainly use 'with a lot of money' here. I don't think 'having' works, however. The reason is that 'having' would suggest a reduction from 'who are having', which would indicate a temporary state rather than a general situation.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Hassan on Thu, 14/10/2021 - 00:37

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Hello Teachers
1- Can we write this sentence " What's the name of the lady that is wearing the blue dress?" like this "What's the name of the lady wearing the blue dress?". I mean without 'that' and 'is'?
2-what did we leave out in these sentences "I like watching my son play football" and "I saw a dog chasing a cat"?
Thanks a lot.

Hello Ahmed Hassan,

Yes, that first sentence is correct. We call this a reduced relative clause -- the full relative clause is 'that is wearing the blue dress'.

The other two sentences you ask about don't have reduced relative clauses. In the first sentence, 'watching' is a gerund, which is basically the noun form of verb. Here, 'watching my son play football' is all the object of 'I like'.

In the other sentence the present participle 'chasing' is used as part of the object ('a dog') of a verb of perception ('saw'). The objects of verbs of perception (e.g. 'see', 'hear', 'listen', etc.), can be followed by a bare infinitive (e.g. 'I saw a dog chase a cat') or a present participle (e.g. 'I saw a dog chasing a cat'). They mostly mean the same thing, but the present participle adds special emphasis to the moment, i.e. to the idea that I was there in that moment watching the action as it happened.

I hope this helps you make sense of these forms.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot, Teacher Kirk.
but what about this sentence "I have three brothers, one of them is a pilot" is it correct to use "them" instead of "whom".
Thanks again.

Hello Ahmed Hassan,

Although people might say the sentence with 'them', or you might even find it in a novel, strictly speaking it is not correct. This is because it's not correct to join two independent clauses (here 'I have three brothers' and 'One of them is a pilot') with a comma; this is called a comma splice (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comma_splice).

In contrast, 'I have three brothers, one of whom is a pilot' is correct because 'one of whom is a pilot' is a relative clause.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sokhom on Sun, 19/09/2021 - 11:39

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Hello, Sir! Could you please tell me if the two sentences are correct: 1. I have two brothers who is a teacher and a doctor. 2. I have two brothers who are a teacher and a doctor. Thank you so much for your time. Best Wishes!

Hi Sokhom,

The second one is the correct one :)

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sokhom on Sun, 05/09/2021 - 10:33

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Hello, team! I was wondering if 'what I see' is a relative clause (a free relative clause) or a noun clause? e.g. I like what I see. e.g. Where she lives is a mystery. (Is 'where she lives' a relative clause or noun clause?) 2. Could I write the sentence as below? e.g. The town where I live in is quiet and peaceful. You explanation is a big help for me. Best Wishes!

Hi Sokhom,

1. what I see and where she lives are both free relative clauses and noun clauses. (A couple of notes: the information on this page above is all about bound relative clauses, not free ones; and different grammar traditions use different terms.)

2. No, it should be one of these options:

  • The town (that/which) I live in is quiet ...
  • The town where I live is quiet ...

As a relative pronoun, where already includes the meaning of 'in', in relation to the noun. You can think of it as substitutable with 'in which' (i.e. The town in which I live / The town which I live in).

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sokhom on Tue, 07/09/2021 - 12:55

In reply to by Jonathan R

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Thank you very much for your precise explanation. :) I wanted to know if the two sentences are equivalent. e.g. Where she lives is a mystery. e.g. The place where she lives is a mystery. So, if I separate the sentence 'where she lives is a mystery' into 2 clauses, I get: 1. Independent clause: ('the place') which is fused + is a mystery 2. Dependent clause: where she lives (or which she lives in) Is it right to separate the clauses like like those above? Thank you for your time. Best Wishes!