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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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

Ah yes there are two errors. And first time I heard of "free" relative clauses. Thanks.

Hello Boaz

I'll explain it in a little more detail for you to see if that helps. 'whom' is only used when the person is talks about is the object of a verb. For example, in the sentence 'This is George, whom you met at our house last year', 'whom' is the object of the verb 'met'.

In contrast, in the sentence 'George is the man who is sitting near the door', 'who' is the subject of the verb 'is sitting'.

One other important detail is that nowadays it's very common for people to say 'who' instead of 'whom'. In other words, the first sentence could also be 'This is George, who you met at our house last year' and still be correct.

I hope this helps. If not, please ask us a specific question so we can better help you.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Soumis par sumanasc le mer 13/11/2019 - 12:26

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Hello Use "Who' and join the two sentences. The boy came to the class. He is a newcomer. a. The boy who came to the class is a newcomer. b.The boy came to the class who is a newcomer. Please let me know which one is correct and why. Many Thanks Christine

Soumis par Peter M. le ven 15/11/2019 - 08:09

En réponse à par sumanasc

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Hello Christine,

The first sentence (a) is correct. The relative clause (beginning with the relative pronoun 'who') should follow the noun which it describes. Here, that noun is 'The boy'.

The second sentence separates the relative pronoun from its referent, and this is the mistake in the sentence.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Quynh Nhu le mar 12/11/2019 - 15:54

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Dear sir, Can I ask what is the correct answer for this question: "I can’t find the files ……………I saved all the important information. A.WHERE B.WHICH C.WHY D.WHEN My friend chose B because he said "which" modifies for things (in this case: "the files"). In my opinion, which is a right answer only in 2 cases. First, "I can’t find the files which I saved "(which plays a role as a object of verb "saved" ). Second, I can’t find the files in which/where I saved all the important information (which plays as a object of prep "in"). So the answer must be A. Please clarify it to me.. Thankyou so much.

Hello Quynh Nhu

I agree with your answer -- A is the only possibility here, though B would be correct if it were 'in which' or if 'in' was added after 'information'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par jpreston le sam 09/11/2019 - 14:57

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Hello I'm a newbie to Grammar. How would you explain past-tense to an object - so... Yesterday I was... then referring to a park bench... a local homeless man usually occupied, either sitting or lying down, but today it was empty. How would you write today it was empty, whilst keeping past tense? Thanks.

Hello jpreston,

I'm afraid I don't understand your question. The phrase 'today it was empty' is perfectly fine and uses a past tense. You seem to be asking how you would change something which does not need changing to fit your criteria.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par loko99 le lun 04/11/2019 - 13:18

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You use commas, whenever you see Spiderman in the TV. Its important that it has to be Spiderman and not any other hero. Loko

Soumis par orian le mer 30/10/2019 - 19:19

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Hello, Is it right to say that relative pronouns act like an adjective, hence, we can find it always after the noun\subject they describe in a sentence?

Soumis par Peter M. le jeu 31/10/2019 - 08:33

En réponse à par orian

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Hello orian,

It's not the relative pronoun which acts as an adjective, but rather the whole of the relative clause. Relative clauses can describe the nouns which precede them, or can describe the whole sentence:

The kettle, which was an old antique, made a loud whistling sound.

The relative clause describes 'kettle'.

We put the relative clause immediately after the noun, as you say.

 

The kettle began to melt, which none of us had expected!

The relative clause describes the whole sentence, giving the speaker's reaction to it.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Dandi le lun 21/10/2019 - 15:33

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Hi, Great, but what about commas? When we must write it? Please write in the simplest way.

Soumis par Kirk le mar 22/10/2019 - 06:11

En réponse à par Dandi

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Hello Dandi

You can find an explanation of when to use commas on this Oxford Dictionary page.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Didi le mer 16/10/2019 - 23:51

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Hi I would like to make clear that in all sentences where I have to fill "who" or "which" I can replace by "that" Or there are cases where I can only use "that" Thank u

Soumis par Kirk le jeu 17/10/2019 - 06:41

En réponse à par Didi

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Hello Didi

I'm afraid it's not quite that simple. For one thing, 'who' is not always a relative pronoun (e.g. 'Who invented the telephone?). Also, in the first kind of relative clauses explained above -- these are sometimes called 'defining relative clauses' -- 'who' can always be replaced by 'that', though I would recommend you learn and practise both. But in the second kind of relative clauses explained above -- these are sometimes called 'non-defining relative clauses' -- only 'who' is correct when we are speaking about a person.

The case is the same for 'which': it is also used in questions (e.g. 'Which film did you see?') and 'that' cannot replace it in non-defining relative clauses, when we use 'which' to give more information -- see for example the sentence 'We had fish and chips, which I always enjoy' above.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ahmed Imam le mer 02/10/2019 - 09:03

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Hello. Could you please help me? Which relative pronoun is correct or both? 1- All we want to know is the truth about whom is to blame for this fatal error. 2- All we want to know is the truth about who is to blame for this fatal error. Some books of English say that after prepositions we must use "whom" not "who". I am really confused. Thank you. thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam

It's true that object forms are used after prepositions, but I would suggest using 'who' here. This is because 'who/whom' is a bit of a special case -- 'whom' has mostly disappeared in most informal, and even many formal, situations nowadays.

There's also the fact that there are situations where both forms are possible. In this case, 'who' or 'whom' is not simply the object of 'about' -- instead it is the head of the phrase 'who/whom is to blame', and it is this phrase that is the object of 'about'. Whether it's correct to use 'who' or 'whom' at the head of such a phrase is a question of style as far as I know.

Hope this helps.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Klecia le lun 16/09/2019 - 11:05

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Greetings, in the relative pronouns 6, example 6, shouldn't it be "after" not "from"? Doesn't it state that the poor grandma literally passed on the eyes? Regards

Hello Klecia

Perhaps in a very specific context this would express what you mean, but in general it is not literal but rather figurative. 'after' would not be correct as a substitute for 'from', but perhaps you're thinking of the phrasal verb 'to take after', which means that a person is similar to another one, usually family, e.g. 'When people see my grandmother's green eyes, they say I take after her'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Goktug123 le jeu 12/09/2019 - 19:46

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Hello Team! I have a question. Which one is true? "Please clarify why it is." or "Please clarify why it is being" Thank you for kind help!

Hello Goktung123,

 

We would not use 'being' in this sentence. The correct form of the two is the first one.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ngeata le lun 02/09/2019 - 08:47

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Hello! Can you please tell me if the sentence below is correct? "For all of you who were and who are my sunshine".

Hello Ngeata,

The sentence is correct grammatically.

Generally, we don't provide a checking or correction service on LearnEnglish. We are a small team and there is a very large number of users on the site, so it's simply not possible for us to do this for everyone.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much! I didn't know how to phrase my question, so I wrote the sentence itself. Is there a rule on singular and plural verbs with "who"? I have often heard phrases like "For those of you, who don't know..." and such, so I thought that the verb should be suitable for something that the "who" refers to. But my English teacher said to me that the verbs in my phrase should be singular. My Grammarly app told me that both options are correct, so I was confused. I couldn't find a rule for that, this topic is the closest I could find. In the comment section I found some similar questions, but still asked for you opinion, just to be sure. Thank you for the help!

Soumis par Hayatullah le jeu 22/08/2019 - 16:48

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What is the main difference between adjective clause and relative clause? Our teacher told us that it has difference?

Hello Hayatullah,

In most grammatical descriptions of English relative clause and adjectival clause are alternative names for the same thing: a dependent clause which describes a noun or noun phrase.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par giangphan le sam 17/08/2019 - 05:38

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1. There are several different credit types you may have on your account depending on certain actions you perform on the website. 2. Pay in many while-collar job has been stagnating relative to inflation. Why we use "depending" and "relative" in these sentences? are they reduced relative clauses? Thank you in advanced.

Soumis par Risa warysha le jeu 01/08/2019 - 03:46

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Hi Sir, Is my sentence correct? The era in which people spend most of their time playing gadget is the dangerous era for our children. Can I use 'when' instead of 'in which'? Are my words appropriate in the case? Thank you,sir

Soumis par Kirk le jeu 01/08/2019 - 08:04

En réponse à par Risa warysha

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Hello Risa warysha

Yes, it's correct to use 'when' instead of 'in which' here, though personally I would use 'in which' -- it just sounds better to me. But 'when' is fine.

'playing gadget' should be 'playing with gadgets'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par redream le jeu 25/07/2019 - 11:27

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Hello. "the place which you can't go is not yours" "the place which you can't go doesn't belong you" "the place what you can't go is not yours" Are there some problems with these sentences? Could you comment their meanings and as grammars, please? Or May you offer some different sentences near their meanings? Thank you very much. Kind Regards..

Soumis par Kirk le ven 26/07/2019 - 00:23

En réponse à par redream

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Hello redream

I wouldn't use the word 'which' in either of the first two sentences and in the second one the word 'to' needs to be used before 'you'. 'what' is not correct in the third sentence.

I'm afraid we don't normally provide detailed explanations of texts that don't come from our site, as it takes quite a lot of time to do it well. If you have a more specific question, please free to ask us, however.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Kieu123 le sam 22/06/2019 - 15:49

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She had two sons, both of ___ killed in the war. A. whom B. them C. which D. whose Which of these are correct, and why?

Hello Kieu123

B and C could work here, though there is a difference in meaning. B (which is short for 'both of whom were killed in the war') means the two sons were killed in war and C means the two boys killed other people in the war.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Soumis par jafari2002 le mar 11/06/2019 - 09:12

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The class which I joined was very interesting. The class where I joined was very interesting. The class that I joined was very interesting. Which sentence is grammatically wrong? Thanks

Hello jafari2002

The second sentence is not correct. A class is not a place and so the relative pronoun 'where' is not appropriate there.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Fareyal le ven 31/05/2019 - 10:33

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Hello, When we write "we live in an era when/where every actions and conversations are monitored through CCTV cameras and smartphones" Which relative pronoun is correct between when and where? "When" sounds unatural to me but I can't explain why for this particular word...

Soumis par Kirk le ven 31/05/2019 - 11:04

En réponse à par Fareyal

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Hello Fareyal 'when' is better than 'where' here, since an era is a period of time and not a place. 'in which' is also a good option here, though it's a little more formal than 'when' -- depending on the situation, this might be more or less appropriate. All the best Kirk The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par sam61 le mar 19/03/2019 - 08:48

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Hi, In the following sentences, is the use of the demonstrative pronoun "this" grammatically correct and/or acceptable in exams such as IELTS? I hold a bachelor's degree. That is the reason why I was eligible to apply for the job. I ask this question as I read in some of the websites related to grammar that the pronouns "which", "that", "this" cannot refer to a group of words, such as a sentence.

Soumis par Kirk le mar 19/03/2019 - 17:32

En réponse à par sam61

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Hello sam61 Yes, you have used 'that' correctly in this series of sentences. It is also possible to say 'this' in this case. The three pronouns you mention are quite versatile and can be used to refer to the ideas expressed in phrases, sentences or even multiple related sentences. All the best Kirk The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par mik0303 le lun 04/03/2019 - 16:47

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Hi Peter, Good day! I am just newly registered on this page. I have come across this website while trying to look for an answer to the grammatical structure of relative/ adjective clauses that has put me in a state of quandary. My question is, "is the tense in a relative/adjective clause independent of the tense in the main clause all the time?" If not, could you please provide me example of a relative clause that depends it tense on the tense of the main clause. Example: The woman (whom) you met a week ago is my cousin. The woman who will call you tomorrow is my secretary. This is the house where the woman was murdered. The boy who was bullying our kid when he was in elementary is the president's son. Thank you!

Hello mik0303

As far as I can think, the times of the two clauses are independent. Perhaps there could be particular situation in which they have to be the same, but if such an example exists, it would generally be clear from the context. 

Does that make sense? If you find a counterexample of this, please do share it -- this kind of question is very difficult to answer, because there are so many possibilities!

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par marta71 le mar 23/07/2019 - 09:12

En réponse à par mik0303

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Hi,I think that in this sentence: This is the house where I live, the second tense depends on the first one.

Hi Eugene Yezhov

Yes, that can be correct, depending on the context and what you mean.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par libero le jeu 17/01/2019 - 17:22

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It includes various workshops and games, which students can learn and stimulate their mind. Or which help students learn and stimulate their mind? Or can I say with which / in which instead?

Soumis par Momocompanyman le dim 30/12/2018 - 08:17

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Hello Sir, I don't understand why you put : who or that in the sentence below : She's the only person ............... really understands me. I can't see the preposition, in which the rules of grammar above can find it.