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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.

 

Comments

I have a confusion about 'that'. What are the conditions in which it can not be used? Because from tutorial I am not getting a clear idea and it  seems like ' that ' can be used everywhere interchangeably.

Hello aavi,
I think the page here lists very clearly when 'that' can be used, and when it cannot be used ('But we do not use that as a subject in this kind of relative clause' - i.e. we do not use 'that' in non-defining relative clauses).
Is there any particular example you have a question about?  We will be happy to help you with any concrete issues.
Best wishes,
 
Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Hey,

I want to make sure I understand this
in question No.8 the answer should be "who" or "that" because the girl is the subject. however, if the sentence were for example
They were looking for the girl.......is selling the ice-cream
the answer should be "whom" or "who" and for sure not "that" because the girl now is object
Is that correct?

Hello M sidawi,
The correct form in your sentence would still be 'who' or 'that' because the relative pronoun is the subject in the second part of the sentence - the subject of the verb 'is selling'. You can contrast this with the sentence:
'They were looking for the girl who(m)/that they had seen that morning.'
Here the relative pronoun is the object of 'had seen'.
I hope that clarifies it for you.
Best wishes,
 
Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Dear All,
 
Thank you for you answer, it makes sense now. I would like to ask just a question more. In the 4th question of exercise, I can understand the sentence as "the photograph, which upset me, was torn", then the first solution is correct (which but not that). But can I understand the sentence as "the tearing of the photograph upset me"? In this case the second solution (which or that) can se chosen?
 
Thank you for help.

Hello kosduong,
The sentence actually has the second meaning - the tearing of the photograph is upsetting - rather than the first.  For it to have the first meaning you mention it would need to be written as a defining relative clause without the comma, as follows:
'He tore up the photograph which upset me'
The photograph is the upsetting thing
rather than:
'He tore up the photograph, which upset me'
The tearing is the upsetting thing
I hope that clarifies it for you.
Best wishes,
 
Peter
The LearnEnglish Team
 

Thanks,Peter!I had the same problem,but finally I got it-when I read your answer several times.:)

Dear All,
In the description I can se "we do no use that as a subject in relative clause", but in the exercises the solutions of the second, the third, the fourth, the sixth  and the eighth question don't prove it. Could you please help me to understand it more.
 
Thank you very much in advance

Dear Kosduong,
Yes, that sentence wasn't clear. We've changed it and it should make more sense now. Does that help?
Thanks for telling us - please let us know if you see any similar problems.
Best wishes,
Adam
The LearnEnglish Team

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