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

Hello, sir.

In the sentence "More people died of the Spanish Flu than died in the war", I was wondering whether "than" in the sentence serves as a pronoun (the subject of the clause) or simply a conjunction to link? If it is not a pronoun, what is the subject of the clause? Or is the subject elided?

Can "than" be used as a linking word for a relative clause? If no, it can only be a linking word for a comparative clause, right?

In your example, than is a conjunction.

Than is not a relative pronoun, so the answer to your second question is no.

Generally, it's better to provide examples with questions like this so we can be sure our answers are accurate, and also so the information is clearer to other users.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your kind reminder. Here are some more examples.

1. He also paid much more attention to lightning and sound than had been done before.
2. Children are likely to have the supervision at home that was common in the traditional family structure.

In the above 2 sentences, I don't see any subjects in the clauses. Is it because both subjects are omitted?

Thanks

Yes, that's correct. Sentence 1 has a passive verb form so you would add something like 'by the crew' or similar if you wanted to add an agent. Sentence 2 does not have any comparative structure and does not contain 'than' at all.

Than as conjunction or preposition is a question which is debated by grammarians. You can find discussions of the topic online:

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/230545/determining-if-than-is-used-as-conjunction-or-preposition

https://www.merriam-webster.com/grammar/usage-of-rather-than

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jantha on Mon, 29/04/2024 - 03:16

"Sometimes I see sentences where 'where' is used without referring to places. Can you explain it to me?"

" A quiz where you guess if the things I say after this are true or false. "

Hello jantha,

We can use 'where' to mean something like 'in which' and it doesn't have to refer to places. For example:

We had a meeting where she got really angry.

I was listening to a song where they tell the story of their family.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Tony_M on Sun, 31/03/2024 - 23:21

Hello,

I've come across this dialog:

Jimmy Kimmel Live (ABC, September 29, 2015)

Jimmy: That's funny. Has there ever been a situation where you didn't know your lines before?
Viola: There's been a situation where I have not known my lines, and there's been a (laughs)... the most prominent situation is when I was doing "Doubt" and Meryl Streep kept screwing up one line.

The structures of the question and the answer are identical, but the where-clauses are so different. Having done a little research, I can conclude that in terms of popularity, the present perfect and the past simple are equally popular among native speakers; it seems to me that they are often interchangeable in where- and when-clauses. However, my research and its interpretation can't be perfect, so I would really appreciate it if you could tell me whether there is any difference between the clauses in bold?

Thank you

Hi Tony_M,

I think it really depends on whether the speaker is thinking of the topic as being a life experience or a concrete event anchored in time. As you know, the same action can be seen in different ways and described in different ways, especially in the context of a spontaneous unscripted conversation. Even in the first sentence Jimmy Kimmel shifts from asking about Viola's whole life (Has there ever been...) to referring to a concrete event anchored in time (you didn't know...). The same thing happens in the answer. I think it's quite characteristic of this kind of conversation and more a reflection of the fluid way we can see our past rather than being connected to the particular clause structure used.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter M.,

Thank you very much.

So, the present perfect was used there to generalize the information about her life experiences, right?
Something like:
Has there ever been a situation (at any time before now in your life) where you didn't know (and here Jimmy is trying to refer to an individual instance in more detail; since he knows that if it's happened before now, it was obviously in the past (then), he uses the past simple).

And Viola tried to keep the present perfect going after she used it at the beginning of her answer.

Does it make sense?

Tony

Submitted by miss.jenny on Tue, 13/02/2024 - 15:18

hi everyone. New here. I am struggling with a question.... I have taken this from an english book and it says one asnwer though I am not entirely sure , it´s related to the use of whom or who. The answer given by the book says WHOM, I think I get but why not WHO considering the action of wearing clothes is done by the ¨people¨. but I understand there is a preposition OF so that would be the only reason I could understand why is WHOM the answer but I am not sure..... please help. This is the exercise:

There were people at the wedding, none of ___ were wearing formal clothes.
a which b whom c who d that

Hello miss.jenny,

The correct form here is 'whom' because it directly follows a preposition. 'Whom' is disappearing from the language as time goes by but it is still always required directly after a preposition.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by howtosay_ on Wed, 29/11/2023 - 01:16

Hello, dear teachers and team!

I've seen the following sentences in the Longman Dictionary:

1. Miranda was sure it was one of them,but not sure which.

2. I don't know which of us was the most scared.

So, tell me please if I could substitute "which" with "who" or "whom" in these sentences ?

I'm very grateful for your valuable contribution to my knowledge and thank you very much indeed for your answer to this post!!!

Hello howtosay_,

In sentence 1 you could use 'who' as the pronoun refers to a person here.

In sentence 2 you could also use 'who', for the same reason.

'Whom' is not correct in either sentence. Just as we say 'Do you know who it was?' (not whom), so in sentence 1 we would not use 'whom'. In sentence 2 'which' is the subject of the verb ('which was the most scared'), so 'whom' is not possible.

'Whom' is quite unusual in modern English apart from when it directly follows a preposition (for whom, to whom, with whom etc).

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by janice08 on Tue, 12/09/2023 - 22:11

Hi, how is it with relative clauses and formality? Is it right that THAT is used in informal settings mainly and relative clauses with WHICH are more formal? If yes, is the explanation that before THAT we can’t use a preposition? When we use a prepostion before WHICH it is more formal so there would be “a clash” when the preposition would be used at the end of the sentence. Thanks. Jana

Hello Jana,

I don't think there's a strong correlation between formality and the choice of that or which/who. That said, I think 'that' is relatively more common in speech but it is not particularly informal.

Using prepositions before relative pronouns is generally quite a formal style but I wouldn't search for a deeper reason along the lines you suggest - I think this would be reading too much into the structures. There are many ways of showing formality in English and changing the word order is quite a common one. For example:

They cannot leave under any circumstances

> Under no circumstances can they leave.

Here we change the words order and use inversion to create a more formal style. I would see 'in which' as something similar.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sally Soo on Thu, 07/09/2023 - 14:23

Hi,
Can you help me distinguish the difference between “where” and “which”? I have read your comment saying that “where: show a location of an action”, so can you give me a description about “which”, “which” shows what?
Thank you,

Hello Sally Soo,

We use the relative pronoun 'which' to refer to things (e.g. 'That's the house which she wants to buy' or 'We had sushi, which is my favourite food'), with prepositions (e.g. 'That's the knife with which we cut the vegetables' or 'That's the knife which we cut the vegetables with') and with quantifiers (e.g. 'I had three cars, two of which now belong to someone else').

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Ax45 on Tue, 29/08/2023 - 11:12

Hi,

I'd like to know which one of these two sentences is correct?

Moreover, is the "girl" the subject of the sentence? Or there are two subjects? The "girl" and "I".

Thanks a lot
Ax

Hello Ax45,

Grammatically, both sentences are possible. However, both seem quite awkward.

In modern English the use of 'whom' in a relative clause is very unusual and can sound rather stilted and archaic, so I think 'who' is the better option.

Notes that both sentences have non-defining relative clauses which add extra information rather than serving to identify the girl. Without knowing the context in which the sentences are used I can't say for certain if this is appropriate but it seems highly likely that a defining relative clause would be more suitable here, meaning one without commas which answers the question 'which girl'.

The sentence has two clauses and each clause has a subject: 'The girl' in the main clause and 'I' in the relative clause.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sanem0 on Tue, 08/08/2023 - 22:24

Hi!

That sentence confused me, ı found it while studying;

→ I visited the city (that / which) John comes from.

I would write 'where'..?

Hi Sanem0,

The correct form here is 'which' or 'that'.

When we use 'where' we do not include a preposition. Compare:

I visited the city that John lives in.

I visited the city where John lives.

The phrase 'comes from' never loses its preposition so there is no equivalent of the second example above. It's a quirk of this particular verb, I'm afraid.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by chkcho on Fri, 14/07/2023 - 02:24

Hello. I was wondering whether the word 'where' in the following sentence may be replaced with 'that' without changing the original meaning of the sentence. I learned that this is possible in some cases, but was not sure if this is the case.
The sentence is "On our way to the site, there was a town where the main square and market were crowded with local people. At the market, I bought a cute doll from a woman who had made it herself".

I tried to search for a right answer to this question, but the results are mixed. I found some sources (e.g. grammarly.com and englishgrammar.org) saying no, but others (e.g. languagetool.org) saying yes.

I also found a case where 'that' can be used instead of 'where':
This is the restaurant where (that) we had a dinner last night.
I would like to learn why the replacement is allowed in this sentence.

Thank you so much for your time.

Hello chkcho,

All of your examples are relative clauses but you have two different grammatical items within them: that/who/which are examples of relative pronouns; where/when are examples of relative adverbs.

Generally speaking, you can replace a relative adverb with a relative pronoun plus an appropriate preposition, not just a relative pronoun. For example:

This is the house where I live.

This is the house in which I live.

This is the house which I live in.

This is the house that I live in.

Friday is the day when I'm most busy.

Friday is the day on which I'm most busy.

Friday is the day which I'm most busy on.

Friday is the day that I'm most busy on.

Note that when you use 'that' you need to put the preposition at the end, not before 'that'. When you use 'which' the preposition can be in either position.

As far as your examples go:

On our way to the site, there was a town where the main square and market were crowded with local people.

You cannot use 'that' here. You could use 'in which':

On our way to the site, there was a town in which the main square and market were crowded with local people.

We would not use the alternative word order here as the phrase is too long; we only put the preposition at the end when the phrase is short as otherwise the sentence becomes quite hard to follow.

Grammarly is more of a style guide than a real grammar guide, in my opinion. I wouldn't recommend using it for language analysis. Sites such as this or Cambridge's grammar site are much better.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by anhtuan01995 on Sat, 20/05/2023 - 13:57

Hi Team,
I got puzzled by this sentence. This is about punctuation in defining and non-defining relative clause. Should I put the comma '','' in my sentence because I think the sport that is played all over the world is just the extra information?
1. Football is a popular sport which is played all over the world.
2. Football is a popular sport, which is played all over the world.
Thank you very much.

Hello anhtuan01995,

I think the sentence is better without a comma. The reason is that there are many popular sports. The sport you are describing is different from some as it is one which is played all over the world. Thus, I would say that the information in the relative clause has an identifying function: it does not simply add an extra comment but actually serves to partly narrow down (restrict) the possible range of meaning. An alternative name for defining relative clauses is restrictive relative clauses and I think it is helpful to think of relative clauses in this way.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ddh13 on Fri, 19/05/2023 - 03:58

Good morning, I'm confused. Could you help me with this question?
Although a graduate degree is a requirement for the position, none of --- who responded to the job announcement have one. (a) these (b) those

The answer is "those". Why "these" is unsuitable?

Is there any example like this sentence which I can use "these who" as pronoun?

Hi ddh13,

When the meaning is "the ones", only "those" is used. "These" would only be used if you are making some kind of physical gesture (e.g. pointing with your finger) to show which people you are referring to.

For more information, you may be interested in this page from Cambridge Dictionary (see the final section, Substitution with that, those). I hope it helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by User_1 on Wed, 10/05/2023 - 15:16

Hello,
As it is written above:
There are two kinds of relative clause:
1. We use relative clauses to make clear which person or thing;
I would like to ask for more: are the first ones called "defining relative clauses" and the second "non-defining relative clauses"?
Is it correct to say: defining relative clauses are used for essential information, while non-defining relative clauses just for extra information?

Hello User_1,

Yes, that's a good summary. The terms that are most often used are defining / restrictive and non-defining / non-restrictive.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by alexandra7 on Sat, 08/04/2023 - 14:07

Hello! I am confused. Could you help me with this sentence?
1. Doctor Strange is a film about a superhero_________ stars Benedict Cumberbatch.
(That/which is written in answer, not where.) I know that “where” we use for a place and a film is not a place. That’s why it is not mention in answers. Am I correct?

Submitted by Prap on Sun, 02/04/2023 - 18:47

I wanted to know if a sub clause can function both as a noun clause and a relative clause.
We may take the following sentences for analysis.
1. This is the reason why I'm here.
2. I don't know the reason why he was absent yesterday.

In sentence 1, the sub clause 'why I'm here' is a noun clause as it works as a complement of be verb . However, it also modifies the noun 'reason' as a relative clause does. In Sentence 2, 'why he was absent yesterday' functions as the object of the verb 'know', making it a noun clause. Again the same clause modifies the noun 'reason' as a relative clause does.

Thanking you!

Hello Prap,

This is a language learning forum where we focus on language use and accuracy. Your question is really on a linguistics topic, which is rather different. I think a better place for this kind of question is the appropriate part of StackExchange:

https://english.stackexchange.com

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by msyashazii on Sun, 26/03/2023 - 15:03

Hello, sir. I have a question. Can conjunction follow the relative clause? Or not?
Do the relative clauses always have to be followed by the relative pronouns? Because, in several cases, I often found them didn't use the relative pronoun.
And one last question, how to differentiate between a sentence that really needs the relative pronoun and one that does not?

Hi msyashazii,

Could you provide some examples of sentences that you found? That will be easier to discuss :)

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Sandy Nguyen on Fri, 24/03/2023 - 02:22

I have a question, Could you help me?
An important event in my life was the beginning of my relationship with Jonathan, ______ I owed to our common friendship with Linda.
that - who - whom - which; which answers I can use for this sentence
Thank you so much

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

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

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

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?

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,

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

Hello!