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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Soumis par sourabhg le mer 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

Soumis par hanluna le mer 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

Soumis par Ahmed Hassan le ven 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

Soumis par Ahmed Hassan le jeu 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

Soumis par Sokhom le dim 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

Soumis par Sokhom le dim 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

Soumis par Sokhom le mar 07/09/2021 - 12:55

En réponse à par 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!

Hi Sokhom,

The two sentences are equivalent in meaning. But they are structurally different.

I think your analysis is right for the second example. But in example 1, is a mystery can't be an independent clause (because it's not a complete sentence if it stands alone). So, I understand the whole of example 1 as a single independent clause. 

Only example 1 has a fused relative clause. 'Fused' means that the relative clause functions as a noun (in contrast, in example 2, it functions as an adjective describing the noun place).

Best wishes also to you!

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Sokhom le jeu 09/09/2021 - 12:36

En réponse à par Jonathan R

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Thank you very much for your time and explanation. I still doubt the term 'a free relative clause' and 'a noun clause'. 1. Where she lives is a mystery. + independent clause: the place is a mystery (the subject of the clause is 'the place' which is fused). + dependent clause: 'which she lives in' is a bound relative clause which functions as an adjective. I think that if I separate like this, "where she lives" is a free relative clause. 2. Where she lives is a mystery. + independent clause: Where she lives is a mystery + Dependent clause: where she lives (a noun clause which functions as subject). So, "where she lives" is a noun clause, not 'a relative clause' because 'an adjectival (a free relative clause' should not be functioned as a subject of a sentence. Therefore, personally whether a clause is 'a free relative clause' or 'a noun clause' depends on how one separates the sentence. I wanted to know if I was right or wrong. Best Wishes!

Hi Sokhom,

For 1, I think the example sentence may be wrong?

For 2, 'where she lives' is a relative clause - it's a free relative clause. It is also a noun clause.

For clarification, here are the two types of relative clause:

  • free/fused (function as nouns, e.g. Where she lives is a mystery.)
  • bound (function as adjectives, e.g. The place where she lives is a mystery.)

I should point out that we don't actually use the terms 'free'/'bound' here on this website. (As I mentioned in my first message, there are different terms belonging to different analytical traditions.) It might be better to follow up with some resources which do use those terms and may go into more depth than we can here - for example, you might find this page useful. I hope it helps :)

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ahmed Imam le jeu 08/07/2021 - 07:47

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Hello. Could you please help me? Which one is correct or both are? Why? 1- There is a lot of beer in the fridge but there isn't much of which I like. 2- There is a lot of beer in the fridge but there isn't much that I like. Thank you.

Hi Ahmed Imam,

This is a slightly odd situation because 'beer' is used an uncount noun, but the point seems to be that there are different kinds of beer. When distinguishing between different brands or types of beer, we often use it as a count noun (e.g. 'There are lots of different beers but none that I like').

1 is not correct: you could say 'much of what I like' or 'much of the kind I like' or 'much of the ones I like', but not 'much of which I like'. 2 is OK I suppose, but as I explained earlier, I'd probably use the count noun form here.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ahmed Imam le sam 29/05/2021 - 14:11

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Hello. Could you help me choose the correct answer? - Much (that - which) your father has said shows that he is angry. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

I'd say 'that' instead of 'which', but I'm not sure I'd say that 'which' is wrong. 

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello teacher KirK, in this case should we say, much of that/which your father has said shows that he is angry. I mean should we put the preposition 'of' before that/which? Thanks.

Hello Maahir,

If you use 'of', then actually you have to use both 'that' and 'which'! In other words, with 'of', the correct sentence is 'Much of that which he said ...' In this case, 'that' is not a relative pronoun but a pronoun, and 'which' is the relative pronoun.

It might be easier to think of the sentence with a noun instead of the pronoun 'that', for example 'Many of the stories which he told ...'

In the case of 'Much that (or 'Much which') he said ...', both 'that' and 'which' are relative pronouns.

Hope that makes sense.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ahmed Imam le mar 04/05/2021 - 10:14

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Hello. Which relative is correct in the following sentence? Why? 1- This is the best which he can do for you. 2- This is the best that he can do for you. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Although both are grammatically possible, I think that is the natural choice here. We tend not to use who or which in constructions such as this, where the noun is omitted (the best thing).

 

That said, I think the majority of speakers would omit the relative pronoun altogether: This is the best he can do for you.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ahmed Imam le lun 26/04/2021 - 19:23

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Hello. Is the following sentence correct? I can't understand it. What is its structure? How can I divide it into 2 simple sentences? "That the rate of educated women has doubled since 1970s is related to their education." Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

That sentence is a little odd. I'd suggest changing the beginning to 'The fact that the rate ...'. That would make it grammatically correct, but the logic appears circular to me.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par hoando124 le mer 24/03/2021 - 10:25

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Hello! I've been thinking about this sentence a lot: "Lily and her dogs, ... go out for a walk everyday, haven't had time to do that recently. It's supposed to be a "that" to be filled in the blank if it was a defining relative clause. However, it's a non-defining one thus a "that" cannot be used here. So please help me with this. Thank you so much!

Soumis par Jonathan R le jeu 25/03/2021 - 13:33

En réponse à par hoando124

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Hi hoando124,

I would use who here, as Lily is a person. :)

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Isa H. Sedeto le mar 16/02/2021 - 13:31

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Hello! How can we differenciate on which from whose? Thanks!

Soumis par Kirk le mer 17/02/2021 - 07:13

En réponse à par Isa H. Sedeto

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Hello Isa,

'whose' always includes the idea of possession, and usually the possessor is a person, animal or organisation (which is composed of people).

'which', on the other hand, refers to an object or idea, but doesn't include the idea of possession or a person that possesses something.

Does that help? If you have a specific sentence you would like to ask us about, please feel free to do that.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Soumis par lmho le jeu 04/02/2021 - 15:37

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Hello, thanks for the content! I don't know whether this has been stated before: I just wanted to let you know that Lagos isn't the capital of Nigeria (task 3).

Soumis par Kirk le ven 05/02/2021 - 08:39

En réponse à par lmho

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Hello Imho,

Thanks very much for telling us about this mistake! I've just fixed it, though it may take a few hours for the change to appear on the site.

Best wishes,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par ClaireUB78 le ven 15/01/2021 - 09:27

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Hello Peter M. Thank you very much for clarifying that for me!

Soumis par ClaireUB78 le mer 13/01/2021 - 11:31

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Hello, I am doing activities using relative pronouns and linking expressions. There is an exercise that I have to tick the ones that are correct and replace the relative pronoun in those that are wrong. "It was not until I was seventeen that I started writing down all what happened to me every day." I know that "what happened" is wrong and I should replace it with "that happened" but I´m not sure why, it just sounds right to me. I mean why can´t it be replaced with "which" as we use that relative pronoun for things also. Please help.

Soumis par Peter M. le jeu 14/01/2021 - 08:12

En réponse à par ClaireUB78

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Hello ClaireUB78,

'What' is not used in relative clauses in English. You can use the relative pronouns who (whom), which and that.

After 'all' we use that rather than who or which in modern English. The use of who or which is not ungrammatical but it sounds archaic to the modern ear.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Roses le ven 08/01/2021 - 10:53

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Someone told me that there is no such thing as a noun clause. Is that true? What I had forgotten was that I had a test today Is “what I had forgotten” a noun phrase or a noun clause in the sentence above Someone told me it was a noun phrase but I don’t believe that because it’s said everywhere on the internet that a noun phrase does not have a subject and verb pairing Please help me understand this

Soumis par Roses le mer 06/01/2021 - 07:32

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I have another question about this other sentence: They may be coming sooner than we expected Someone told me that the word ‘be’ in this sentence was a bare infinitive Or is the word ‘be’ in this sentence a helping verb? Is the word ‘coming’ in this sentence a verbal? What tense is this sentence in? I think it’s in progressive tense but it doesn’t match up with how any of the progressive tenses are formed so I’m a bit confused. I already know that ‘may’ is a modal verb and that ‘may be coming’ is suppose to be a verb phrase

Hello Roses,

The modal verb 'may' is followed by an infinitive without 'to', but there are different forms of the infinitive. Here, you have a continuous infinitive formed with be + verb-ing.

 

There are many infinitive forms. For example:

He may come... > infinitive

He may be coming... > continuous infinitive

He may have come... > perfect infinitive

He may be stopped... > passive infintive

He may have been stopped... > perfect passive infinitive

He may have been being stopped... > perfect passive continuous infinitive

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Soumis par Roses le mer 06/01/2021 - 02:51

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All that was left was a triangular piece of metal Why is it possible to have two verbs here? Is one “was” a verbal? Is there two clauses here?

Hello Roses,

'All that was left' is the subject of the sentence. In terms of structure it contains a relative clause and is similar to this:

The man who worked at the bank was very nice.

In this sentence 'The man' is a noun phrase and 'who worked at the bank' is a relative clause describing the noun phrase.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

So is “All was a triangular piece of metal” an independent clause? and is there a limit to how many questions I can ask? and thank you for helping me

Hello Roses,

No, you can't use 'all' in that way. It can only be part of a larger subject: all I could see was... / all we had was... / all we need is... etc.

 

We don't limit the number of questions a person asks on the site, but we try to provide answers to as many users as we can, so we usually only answer one question from any particular user on any particular day. In other words, if you ask multiple questions then you might have to wait a little longer for your answer.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Is a relative clause and subordinate clause the same thing? Is “that was left” a subordinate clause? Someone told me that “All that was left” was a noun phrase is that true? Is the part “was a triangular piece of metal” a verb phrase? Is a main verb and finite verb the same thing?

Hello Roses,

Relative clauses are one kind of subordinate clause; there are other kinds.

 

In your example 'all' is a pronoun and 'that was left' is a relative clause describing it; 'all that was left' is a noun phrase functioning as the subject of the sentence.

 

'...was a triangular piece of metal' is a verb phrase consisting of a verb with its complement.

 

The term 'finite verb' is used to describe those verb forms which has a subject and can be used to form an independent clause. In other words, finite verbs are verb forms other than the infinitive, participles and gerunds.

'Main verb' is a descriptive term used to contrast with auxiliary verbs.

 

I hope those answers clarify it for you. Please note that this is a site focused on language learning and use rather than linguistic analysis. Where analysing the language in this way helps with language learning we're happy to do it, but we try to avoid an overly technical focus on terminology and sentence analysis for the most part.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Shortie Dork le dim 27/12/2020 - 14:13

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Hello i want to ask Which is correct: - I was invited by the professor who / whom i met at the conference
Hi , According to me it should be: I was invited by the professor whom i met at the conference.

Hello Shortie Dork,

Both are grammatically possible.

The relative pronoun is the object of the verb 'met', so it is possible to use whom. However, use of whom is disappearing in modern English other than when it directly follows a preposition (to whom, for whom etc), so who is the more common option.

 

You can read more about this topic on this page;

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/relative-pronouns-and-relative-clauses

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Shoaib50 le sam 26/12/2020 - 10:52

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Hi Team, Please need your comments on following sentences. 1. The man kept a bag under the table which had four curved legs. 2. The man kept a bag under the table. This had four curved legs. which is correct and why ?