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.

She is the best girl ... I have ever met
Why the answer is that not whom

Whom is the object pronoun but is disappearing from use in modern English. Nowadays it is only required when it directly follows a preposition (so we say to whom, for whom and with whom rather than to who, for who and with who).

In other contexts, even if whom is grammartically possible, it can sound very unnatural. This is the case in your example. Whom is not grammatically incorrect, but it is not the normal choice in modern English and sounds rather unnatural.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,

When a relative clause is introduced with relative adverbs such as when, where and why, is the clause still considered a relative clause? or must relative clauses always be introduced by relative pronouns which refer to nouns (i.e. the relative clause introduced with a relative pronoun, serves to give more information about the noun that the relative clause modifies)?

Also, when used this way, it seems that oxford lexico dictionary describes such "when, where or why", as relative adverbs...for example use of "when" in "Tuesday is the day when we have pizza". But it seems to me that "when" here is modifying day (a noun), so why is it that some people call "when" a relative adverb, while others see "when" here as an "adjective" since it modifies a noun (i.e. day)?

Hi Tim,

Yes, the relative clause is still a relative clause. It is usually called an adverb relative clause.

You need to distinguish between the adverb (when, where, why) and the clause as a whole. The function of the adverb is to head the clause and act as a connector with the rest of the sentence. The function of the clause as a whole is adjectival, as you say. In other words, the relative adverb is part of an adjectival clause.

You can often replace the relative adverb with a preposition and a relative pronoun:

Tuesday is the day on which we have pizza.

Adverbs are perhaps the broadest category of word in English and sometimes the category is controversial for this reason, being seen as a catch-all category whose members have an extraordinary range of functions. You can see some of these under these links:

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Why are relative clauses also called adjective clauses?

Hello Tim,

Relative clauses provide information about a noun (or noun phrase) so their function in the sentence is adjectival. That is why they are sometimes called adjective clauses.

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello
I have a question concerning the relative pronouns "who/whom". (who) is used as a subject of a verb and (whom) as an object of a verb or preposition. When I was doing an exercise about determining whether the relative pronoun a subject pronoun or object pronoun I found these sentences:
1. Do you know the girl who I danced with?
2. This is the man who Barbara visited in Scotland.
I think they should normally be with (whom) not with (who). I know that it is used in spoken or informal language but what about formal or Academic English, is it correct to use (who) instead of (whom) when it functions as an object?

Hello Erwin Smith

That's correct -- in informal situations, and even in some formal ones, people often use 'who' instead of 'whom'. There's quite a bit of variation in formal and academic writing and speaking -- sometimes you see or hear 'whom' and sometimes 'who'. It's difficult to give advice without knowing more about your situation, but you might perhaps use 'whom' in writing but 'who' in speaking.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

thank you so much

It's really great.