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.

 

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Hi Natavan Gojayeva,

Yes, in moden usage of British English, who is often used instead of whom. Here are some examples to compare:

  1. Whom should I talk to?
  2. To whom should I talk?
  3. Who should I talk to?

1 and 2 are traditionally regarded as correct. In some varieties of English, it's not recommended to end a sentence with a preposition, so 1 and 3 would be regarded as incorrect. Version 3 uses who instead of whom (which is traditionally incorrect), but this would be the most commonly used version (in British English, at least) and few people would consider it an error. Speakers would only use 1 and 2 if they were making a special effort to speak correctly.

As you can see, it's a bit complicated :)

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello thank you very much for your explanation. But my confusion is, here in the explanation "from who/whom" is correct to use. But in advanced cambridge it say preposition+whom is correct otherwise preposition has to come after the clause if we use "who/that" E.g. She spoke to a professor that/who she is friendly with. She spoke to a professor with whom she is friendly. I hope I could explain. Thank in advance for taking time to read my post.

Hi Natavan Gojayeva,

OK, I see now. I agree with the Cambridge book you mentioned, and that is what is traditionally regarded as correct.

But, we can also consider how language is used in real life, which does not always follow what is traditionally regarded as correct. The examples above using who(m) are a description of what people actually say (in speaking, especially), even though it might be considered incorrect. 

So, it's good to be aware of the "correct" forms if you are taking an exam, or writing or speaking in a situation where correctness is important. But in everyday, casual conversation, all the forms described above are acceptable. 

I hope I've explained it more clearly now?

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par VegitoBlue le dim 28/06/2020 - 00:35

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"Lindsey plays field hockey now, but last year she was on the soccer team". The coordinating conjunction "but" in this sentence is meant to connect two main (independent) clauses, each of which should rightfully be able to stand on its own given that they are main clauses. My question is that since second main (independent) clause "last year she was on the soccer team" uses a relative pronoun "she", which links to "Lindsey" in the first (main) independent clause, how can the second clause be considered a true (main) independent clause which can stand on its own? And if indeed for this reason the second clause can no longer be considered as a true (main) independent clause, then doesn't this mean the use of the coordination conjunction "but" is not justified since a coordinating conjunction's role is primarily to link two (main) independent clauses?

Hello magnuslin,

The pronoun she requires a referent but that does not mean that it cannot be used in an independent clause. The referent can be in a different sentence, even a sentence which another person said, or it can be something extra-linguistic such as a picture of a person which is visible to the speakers.

More fundamentally, a sentence does not have to make sense to be grammatical. You can create perfectly grammatical sentences which make no sense at all.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par kangmingoon le ven 26/06/2020 - 17:27

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Hello every one . I have a setence combined like this. Dr. Smith is a good surgeon. He lives next door. >Dr. Smith is a good surgeon who lives next door. (Is this right?)

Soumis par Alaa El Baddini le mer 24/06/2020 - 06:06

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

Hello Alaa El Baddini,

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

Soumis par Timothy555 le dim 21/06/2020 - 13:39

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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)?

Soumis par Peter M. le lun 22/06/2020 - 07:52

En réponse à par Timothy555

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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:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Adverbs_by_type

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Timothy555 le ven 12/06/2020 - 14:43

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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

Soumis par Erwin Smith le jeu 11/06/2020 - 18:12

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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? thanks in advance!

Soumis par Kirk le ven 12/06/2020 - 09:15

En réponse à par Erwin Smith

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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

Soumis par heoquay193 le jeu 07/05/2020 - 09:03

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I got confused whether or not there's a comma here: I have a friend (,) who collects stamp. I think "I have a friend." is grammatically correct and it can stand alone as a full sentence. Is the comma necessary? Thank you.

Hello heoquay193,

Although we don't have the context, I think it is clear that this is a defining relative clause (identifying which friend you have in mind) rather than a non-defining relative clause (providing extra but unnecessary information). Defining relative clauses are not separated by a commas, so no comma should be used.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ahmed2020 le sam 02/05/2020 - 05:16

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I think these examples are like that: 1- A stunt person is someone who ''stands in'' for an actor during dangerous scenes. Defined 2- A computer-graphics supervisor who needs advanced technical knowledge often spends millions of dollars on computer graphics. Non-defined 3- A stagehand is the person who moves the sets of stage in a theater production. Defined 4- A movie producer who controls the budget decides how money will be spent. it is defined as well, because people do not know about this job. Am I right?

Soumis par Ahmed2020 le sam 02/05/2020 - 05:08

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Hello Teachers I have a question which has been puzzled me a lot. When it it comes to the different now types, is there any difference between them? For example are common, proper, abstract collective or job titles like ''stagehand'' or ''computer-graphics supervise'' must always be defined on Non-defined? I will appreciate providing examples.

Hello Ahmed2020,

I think you're a little confused with the terminology here. Defining and non-defining in the context of this page refer to relative clauses, not to nouns. They describe particular grammatical constructions:

> defining relative clauses identify the particular item being described (more here)

> non-defining relative clauses give extra, non-essential information about the item being described (more here)

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Nguyen Quoc Cuong le lun 27/04/2020 - 21:49

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Hello. I'm not clear which of these two sentences is dramatically correct. 1. The works that involve person-to-person interactions... 2. The works that involves person-to-person interactions... Thank for your explanation in advance.

Hello Nguyen Quoc Cuong

The first one is grammatically correct: the verb 'involve' agrees with the plural noun 'works'. In 2, 'involves' would agree with the subject 'work', but not 'works'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par NisaMsaraa le lun 27/04/2020 - 06:51

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Hi, how would you combine these sentences with relative pronouns? 1. Look at that old school. I used to go there. 2. These earrings are lovely. My sister bought them for me. Thank you!

Hello NisaMsaraa

You could say:

1. Look at the old school that I used to go to.
2. The earrings my sister bought for me are lovely.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Tamigorositt le sam 18/04/2020 - 00:49

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how would you change these into a sentence with relative pronouns? The person wasn´t Michael. You met him. I can´t remember the hotel in which we stayed. Thankssss!

Hello Tamigorositt,

The sentences in the first example can be joined with who or that:

The person who/that you met wasn't Michael.

You could omit the relative pronoun:

The person you met wasn't Michael.

 

Your second example can be rewritten with a relative adverb, not a relative pronoun:

I can't remember the hotel where we stayed.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par GalaxyWolf-Dra… le jeu 02/04/2020 - 10:10

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How would you change these into a sentence with relative pronouns? -Micheal announced the results. He had a really loud voice. -The form with the best results won a cup. The cup was presented by Mr. Cadogan. Thanks!

Hello GalaxyWolf-Dragon6786

There are different ways you could combine the first one:

Michael, who had a really loud voice, announced the results.
Michael, who announced the results, had a really loud voice.

For the second one I'd say 'The form with the best results won the cup, which was presented by Mr Cadogan.'

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Noorsleiman09 le mar 31/03/2020 - 09:14

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Hello teachers, are the following sentences correct? Clara’s dad, who is 78, retired last week. The fire, which started from faulty wiring, didn’t get put out until 3am. A few students- who are in 6th grade- planned a party.

Hello Noorsleiman09

The first two are fine, but the third is a bit awkward. Different writers and editors also have different opinions about the use of dashes, so in general I'd avoid them if possible. Instead, I'd write something like 'A few 6th-grade students planned a party'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ahmed Imam le mer 25/03/2020 - 19:10

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Hello. I'd really like to appreciate your help. You have improved our understanding of English. Today, we had a discussion about relatives. A colleague said the following sentence: I can't achieve all which I want. However, some other colleagues objected to using " which" after "all" saying that it's wrong. What is the correct relative? Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

The correct form is as follows:

I can't achieve all (that) I want.

I think in the past all which was a more common form, but it has largely disappeared in modern English.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Niania le ven 07/02/2020 - 11:52

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Hi, Can you tell me please why there should not be a comma in the following sentence (after the word range): Everest is part of a mountain range which stretches across the Himalayas. Thanks!

Soumis par Peter M. le sam 08/02/2020 - 07:46

En réponse à par Niania

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Hello Niania,

The relative clause beginning which stretches... is a defining relative clause. It does not only add extra information to the sentence but actually defines the noun before it. In other words, it answers the question 'Which range?'

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par EmiiR le ven 07/02/2020 - 03:32

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Hello teachers, I have a doubt with when In the sentence: "He started playing in the team when he was only 19", is "when he was only 19" a relative clause? if not, why? Thanks!

Hello EmiiR,

In this sentence, when is a subordinating conjunction. It introduces a dependent clause which has an adverbial function, giving us more information about the action in the main clause.

A relative clause has an adjectival function, giving us more information about the noun preceding it.

 

You can read more about adverbial clauses here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adverbial_clause

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Kaisoo93 le dim 19/01/2020 - 07:22

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Hello Teachers, Can 'which' replace 'and' also? Are 4 of the following sentences correct? 1) Poor students being prevented from entering university excludes a large proportion of society and is discriminatory and can be avoided by getting rid of tuition fees. 2) Poor students being prevented from entering university excludes a large proportion of society and is discriminatory which can be avoided by getting rid of tuition fees. 3) Poor students being prevented from entering university excludes a large proportion of society which is discriminatory and can be avoided by getting rid of tuition fees 4) Poor students being prevented from entering university excludes a large proportion of society which is discriminatory can be avoided by getting rid of tuition fees. Thank you

Hello Kaisoo93

The first three could be correct, though I'd choose sentence 3 and put a comma after 'society'. 

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par zhouyoumin le mer 18/12/2019 - 11:37

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Hello! Someone asked me which of these sentences is correct: For you who dare to dream. For you who dares to dream. For you who are bold. For you who is bold. I thought it should depend on whether 'you' referred to one or many people. But when I looked for examples on this sentence pattern, I only got more confused! What if the sentence started with "It is you..."? It is you who dare to dream. It is you who dares to dream. It is you who are wrong. It is you who is wrong. Would really appreciate some tips on how to figure these out. Thanks!

Soumis par Peter M. le jeu 19/12/2019 - 07:27

En réponse à par zhouyoumin

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Hello zhouyoumin,

You are correct that the question is whether or not 'you' refers to many people or one person.

The pattern with 'It is...' does not change this. 'It is...' here creates a cleft sentence and can be used with both singular and plural nouns:

It is this person who I need to meet.

It is these people who I need to meet.

You can read more about cleft sentences on this page.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for your reply, Peter. I enjoyed reading all the examples on cleft sentences in the link. Could you help clarify one more thing, please? Back to this example with the verb 'be'. It is you who are wrong. It is you who is wrong. Which is correct? Do we say 'It is you who are wrong.' because the pronoun 'you' takes a plural verb ==> are Or would it be better to say 'It is you who is wrong." because 'you' is a singular subject? In this example (https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/cleft-sentence): 'You stole the money' can be rewritten as ‘It was you who stole the money'. So, would it mean that 'You are wrong' should be rewritten as 'It is you who are wrong'?

Hello again zhouyoumin,

I have heard both forms used in modern English. My own preference is for 'is', which keeps 'who' as a third-person form. For example, all of these sound perfectly fine to me:

It is Paul who is in charge here.

It is you who is in charge here.

It is I who is in charge here.

 

However, a sentence like this one sounds very unnatural to me:

It is I who am in charge here.

 

The example 'It was you who stole the money' does not help in any way because 'stole' is a past form, and so has no marker for person. However, you could say 'It is you who steals the money'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Gospodincoek le mar 10/12/2019 - 22:21

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Hello,I had a test today and i'm not sure about one question: Keisha is the youngest of her 3 sisters.She was born in 1995. Please answer me as fast as possible.

Hello Gospodincoek,

We'll be happy to give you some advice but I can't see what your question is. What did you have to do in the test?

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Darshanie Ratnawalli le jeu 05/12/2019 - 08:07

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There has been a bit of a commotion in Sri Lanka about the use of a relative clause in Britain. In the Conservative Party's election manifesto, a relative clause beginning with 'where' has been used after a list of words, separated by a comma from the last word of the list. In Sri Lanka, the understanding is that the relative clause in this case refers to the whole list, though according to the Conservative Party, the relative clause only applies to the last word in the list. The sentence is- "We will continue to support international initiatives to achieve reconciliation, stability and justice across the world, and in the former conflict zones such as Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, where we maintain our support for a two-state solution." Now, what is the grammar rule, which if taught in SL schools, would have helped to avoid the misunderstanding?

Hello Darshanie Ratnawalli,

In my opinion, the sentence is ambiguous. The relative clause refers to the item preceding it, but this could be the entire list ("the former conflict zones such as Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East") or it could be only the final item ("the Middle East").

Because the sentence is ambiguous, the only way to identify the referent would be to check other sources to confirm party policy.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Fleep le sam 30/11/2019 - 18:31

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Former English instructor here. I came across a headline this morning on a major news organization and cringed at the error on the front webpage main article of the day. It needs the word "what" inserted. I also want to identify the grammar structure and thought at first it was a relative pronoun. However, after perusing the standard list of relative pronouns, I thought secondly that it was missing an object pronoun....But I don't know if that is right either. In the below headline, if we insert "what" between "in" and "he", what grammar tool/structure is "what"? I cannot upload a simple screen shot here so I will copy the headline and provide a link to CNN. https://------------------------------------------------------------------------ "The President must decide whether to legitimize the impeachment inquiry by allowing his lawyers to participate or refuse to take part in [WHAT] he says is a sham"

Hello Fleep,

You are quite correct that there is an error in the sentence. In fact, I would say that there is a second error. In the sentence as written the refusal relates to the lawyers, whereas it should relate to the President:

...to legitimize the impeachment inquiry by allowing his lawyers to participate or refuse to take part... [the lawyers participate or refuse]

...to legitimize the impeachment inquiry by allowing his lawyers to participate or refusing to take part... [the President allows or refuses]

 

As far as the structure goes, what he says is a sham is a relative clause. This type of relative clause is a free relative clause, that is to say it is a relative clause which does not refer directly back to an element in the sentence.

You can read more about bound and free relative clauses here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_clause#Bound_and_free

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team