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 amirfd le mer 27/09/2017 - 01:46

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Hello. what has been the adjective clause before reduction to adjective phrase? The driver, not realizing that the traffic light has been red, crossed the street.

Soumis par Kirk le mer 27/09/2017 - 06:40

En réponse à par amirfd

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Hello amirfd,

We're happy to help you with this, but we generally ask that you tell us what you think the answer is. This sentence is a little bit awkward, but I imagine it was something like 'The driver, who didn't realize that the light was red, crossed the street.'

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par JakiGeh le dim 10/09/2017 - 20:30

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Hi there, ''He found out that he has been there'' We do not use a relative pronoun ''that'' after prepositions, but I do not understand why we use it after a phrasal verb. Is it because it is a unit? If so, why do we not use the pronoun after a dependent preposition even tough the dependent preposition is a part of the unit too; for example, ''He apologized for that he was late'' Thank you in advance

Hello JakiGeh,

'that' is not a relative pronoun in this sentence -- it is a conjunction that links the verb before to it to the clause after it. In any case, the word 'out' in 'found out', as part of a phrasal verb, is not really a preposition but rather an adverb particle, so the rules for prepositions don't really apply.

When 'apologize' has a direct object, we use the preposition 'for' between it and the direct object. This is simply the pattern we use with 'for', i.e. it's just the way people have come to use the verb 'apologize'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par amirfd le jeu 24/08/2017 - 12:48

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Hello. The package contains books and records --------- to the library recently. a.delivered b.has been delivered I have problem in difference between adjective phrase and passive voice.

Soumis par Kirk le jeu 24/08/2017 - 18:58

En réponse à par amirfd

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Hello amirfd,

For one thing, b) cannot be correct because the auxiliary verb 'has' is used with singular subjects. In this phrase, the subject is 'books and records', which is plural. a) is a reduced relative clause -- in other words, it is 'that (or 'which') have been delivered' reduced to just the form 'delivered'. See this relative clauses page for more information on this.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par amirfd le mer 23/08/2017 - 09:54

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Hello. They worked for companies .............high salaries. a.that paid b.which paid c.paying What's the difference?

Soumis par Kirk le mer 23/08/2017 - 20:06

En réponse à par amirfd

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Hello amirfd,

What do you think? Please tell us how see the answers -- this will help us help you more effectively.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Ayesha25 le mar 22/08/2017 - 01:34

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In writing a business letter is it too wordy to say "We regret to learn that your card that is being used for your account was cancelled due to fraudulent activity."

Hello Ayesha25,

The sentence is both too wordy and incorrect grammatically. It's hard for me to be sure what you want to say as the tenses in the sentence are unclear, meaning the time references are not clear. I also don't know why 'learn' is used here, or who is writing to whom - if it is a letter from a bank then something like '...regret to (have to) inform you...' would be appopriate, for example.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par amirfd le mer 09/08/2017 - 04:49

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Hello. She worked for a small company ....... . a.that sold books b.which it sold books. What's the difference between a and b?

Soumis par Peter M. le mer 09/08/2017 - 06:57

En réponse à par amirfd

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Hello amirfd,

The first option is a defining relative clause where the relative pronoun 'that' is the subject of the verb 'sold'.

The second option is incorrect. You can use 'which' or 'that' but there is no need for 'it' as the relative pronoun is the subject of the verb.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Aliaa Abu El-Yazied le ven 28/07/2017 - 14:51

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The fourth question "he tore up the photograph" why using Which only not which or that, I can't understand?

Hello Aliaa Abu-Yazied,

The example here is a non-defining relative clause (note the comma) and so 'that' is not possible. We use 'that' only in defining relative clauses.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Elmar H. le mar 25/07/2017 - 14:38

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Hello, I don't understand this clause: They had four children, all of ............... went to university. Why we don't use "which", and we use only "whom"?

Soumis par Elmar H. le mar 25/07/2017 - 23:38

En réponse à par Elmar H.

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Sorry, I wanted to say "that", not "which".

Soumis par Kirk le mer 26/07/2017 - 02:24

En réponse à par Elmar H.

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Hello Elmar,

The relative pronoun 'that' is not used after prepositions (here, 'of' is a preposition). 'whom' is the best form here, since it refers to people (the children).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Marcela Santos le lun 29/05/2017 - 23:56

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Hello! I don't understand why we use 'which' but not 'that' in the phrase 'She wrote a best- selling book, the name of which I've completely forgotten.' I guess that forgot the name of book, not the person who wrote the book, Can you help me please? Thanks

Soumis par Kirk le mer 31/05/2017 - 07:58

En réponse à par Marcela Santos

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Hello Marcela Santos,

Only 'which' is correct because only 'which' can be the object of a preposition. In this sentence, 'which' is the object of 'of'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par raj jk le jeu 11/05/2017 - 10:40

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hello 01.The student in grade eleven are organizing a debate competition on 3R attitude. 02.The student are in grade eleven are organizing a debate competition on 3R attitude. 03.The student who are in grade eleven are organizing a debate copetition on 3R attitude. Can you help me to recognize the one that is grammatically more correct please ?

Soumis par Kirk le jeu 11/05/2017 - 11:11

En réponse à par raj jk

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Hello raj jk,

All three mistakes have an error -- the subject should be plural ('students' instead of 'student'). Once that correction is made, then 1 and 3 are correct, but 1 is better because there is no real need for a relative clause ('who are'). As a general rule, simpler is better.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par raj jk le mar 09/05/2017 - 11:48

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hello I have little doubt about correctness of the following sentences 01.Apples that contain poisons are harmful for children. 01.Apples those contain poisons are harmful for children. that or those? that is the problem

Soumis par Kirk le mar 09/05/2017 - 14:06

En réponse à par raj jk

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Hello raj jk,

The first sentence is correct and the second one is not. 'that' is a relative pronoun in this sentence.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Nizam Balinese le dim 09/04/2017 - 09:59

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Hello, Team. I replace this sentence from Word on the Street, Bonfire Night episode. "Join Joe to find out why the British celebrate people trying to blow up Parliament". ================ 1. There are two words omitted before the verb 'trying' in the sentence. They are ' who was', right? 2. Could I change 'trying' in the sentence into 'that tried' or 'who tried' ? Would you mind explaining, please? Thank you very much.

Hello Nizam Balinese,

You are correct that there are words omitted here and you are also correct in identifying which words could be added. The construction here is a relative clause and when we miss out these words we call it a reduced or simplified relative clause. You can read more about these here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter. Thank you very much for explaining. Please, don't be tired to help me. I know, it's difficult to be a good teacher but you must be know that more difficult to be a good student moreover what we're learning now is not our own language. Could you imagine what i have done for along time, open and open again my dictionary and then in every end I study, there is always a rising question "What's it all for?". This passion doesn't come from a good teacher like you or from another kind person. I need extra effort to make it out by myself. Have you ever counted how many seriously student do you have in life as teacher? Did you easy to find him? ================== Hope, you and your country will be proud of this. Best regards, your seriously student

Hello Nizam Balinese,

Thank you for your lovely comment. We're all teachers here in the LearnEnglish Team and it's our aim to provide as much help as we can. It's nice to hear when our help makes a difference for people! Unfortunately we have many thousands of users on the site and very limited time, so it's only possible for us to provide a certain amount of help.

Thanks again,

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par mohammad bazzy le jeu 30/03/2017 - 19:17

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Dear Team In this sentence: "I had an uncle in Germany that I inherited a bit of money from." you used "that" for a person, while you have said before that "that" cannot be used for humans, and used the same sentence with "who" instead. please explain. Thank you.

Soumis par Peter M. le ven 31/03/2017 - 07:01

En réponse à par mohammad bazzy

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Hello mohammad bazzy,

I think your memory may be playing tricks on you! It is perfectly fine to use 'that' to refer to people in defining relative clauses. I doubt that we have ever said differently, but if there is such a statement on our site then please let us know where you saw it.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par JuliaJasm le lun 06/03/2017 - 13:05

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Hello! Please explain me the difference between these two clause. 1) That's a song (which/that) reminds me of my youth. 2) He tore up the photograph, (which/but not that) upset me. 1. This is the song, the song reminds me of my youth. (I can put "that") 2. He tire up the photograph, the photograph upset me. (why can't I put "that" here?)

Soumis par Kirk le lun 06/03/2017 - 13:34

En réponse à par JuliaJasm

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Hello JuliaJasm,

It looks to me as if you've understood the first sentence. 'that' or 'which' can be used as relative pronouns in 1 because they refer to the song. A song is an inanimate object, so you can use either relative pronoun with no change in meaning.

In 2, if you remove the comma after 'photograph', you could use 'that', but it means something different. If you say 'He tore up the photograph that upset me', it means that he took one photograph – the photograph that upset you – and he tore it up.

If you say 'He tore up the photograph, which upset me' (notice the comma is there, as it is in the exercise question), it means that he took the photograph and tore it up, but it wasn't the photograph that upset you – it was him tearing it up that upset you. The photograph was probably very important to you in this case. 'which' refers to a situation in this case, not the photograph. The comma is important in this kind of construction.

I hope that clarifies it for you, but if not, please don't hesitate to ask us again.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par mohamedfathy le ven 10/02/2017 - 12:19

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Hi, Sir I fell a little confused about using 'that' in a non defining relative clause because I know in a non defining relative clause we do not use 'that' but the explanation here says: We can use that at the beginning of the clause: 'I had an uncle in Germany that I inherited a bit of money from'. 'We bought a chainsaw that we cut all the wood up with'. So that means we can use 'that' in a non defining relative clause when the preposition comes at the end of the sentence. Could you please give me more information about that topic? Thank you

Hello mohamedfathy,

We cannot use 'that' in non-defining relative clauses. Both of the examples you provide are defining relative clauses, not non-defining relative clauses.

It's important to note that whether or not particular information is defining or not can depend upon the perspective of the speaker. The same sentence can be seen as defining or non-defining, depending on the context and the speaker's intent, and on how the speaker sees the situation which he or she is describing.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you, Peter. I understand know we can't use 'that' in a non defining relative clause So that means in this example: 'I had an uncle in Germany who I inherited a bit of money from' ( a defining relative clause) or 'I had an uncle in Germany that I inherited a bit of money from'.( a defining relative clause) that means may be I have more than one uncle and one of whom was in Germany and I inherited him but in this example 'I had an uncle in Germany, from who I inherited a bit of money' ( a non defining relative clause) that means I have only one uncle and he was in Germany. Does that explanation right? could you please help me to make me sure about it? but by the way I tried to understand the different between this example 'We bought a chainsaw, with which we cut up all the wood' and this 'We bought a chainsaw that we cut all the wood up with' but I couldn't understand the difference? could you please tell where is the difference? Thank you.

Hello mohamedfathy,

Defining relative clauses are used to identify the person or thing being described. This is generally, as you suggest, in order to distinguish them from other, similar, people or things. The direction of your thoughts is therefore correct and show that you understand the distinction - well done. Remember, however, that these things are very much dependent on context. It would be possible to speculate about in which contexts you might need to use which type of relative clause about the chainsaw in the same way that you did with the sentence about the uncle, but I'm not sure it is really helpful to try to invent contexts to fit random sentences. Language use works the other way: we have a need to express something and find the language for it.

I think it's clear you have a good grasp of the distinction between defining and non-defining relative clauses.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par rosario70 le ven 03/02/2017 - 18:22

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good evening dear teachers, i have still some doubts around two relative clauses. 1) the friend (whom ) i talked about attends the university; 2) there is something (which) you shouldn't worry about. May i not mention whom and which? . I 'm beginning to speak english nearly well with your help, i don't know how to thank you. your willingness is fantastic.

Hello rosario70,

In defining (restrictive) relative clauses it is possible to omit the relative pronoun when the verb in the relative clause has another subject. In your sentences these verbs have subject - 'I' in the first sentence and 'you' n the second sentence. Therefore it is fine to omit the relative pronouns, as you say. It is also fine to leave them in, of course.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par annhien92 le jeu 12/01/2017 - 02:40

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Hi, In my workbook, there is two sentences "Brenda is my friend. I go to school with her". I have to use relative pronoun to emerge these two sentences. (1) Brenda, who I go to school with, is my friend. (2) Brenda is my friend who I go to school with. Are the two sentences correct?

Soumis par Peter M. le jeu 12/01/2017 - 07:01

En réponse à par annhien92

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Hi annhien92,

I'm afraid we don't provide answers to questions from elsewhere. Otherwise we would end up doing everyone's homework for them! This is a task for you to do and your teacher to check.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par tukhanhlinh1322 le jeu 05/01/2017 - 09:14

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How to use relative pronouns after "of" like "They had four children, all of ............... went to university." . Thank you!

Hello tukhanhlinh,

The word 'of' here is a preposition and so needs an object after it. A relative pronoun can be an object but we do not use 'who' after a preposition; therefore 'whom' is correct here. You can also use 'which'. Generally we do not use this when talking about people but when it is follows a preposition it is acceptable. 

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Maryse20 le lun 26/12/2016 - 21:28

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I would like to know the difference between a defining relative clause and a non-defining relative clause?

Hello Maryse20,

There are several ways to find this information. You can go through our Grammar pages, using the links to get to the section you wish. You can use our Quick Grammar pages and see if the topic is addressed there. However, probably the quickest way is to use the site's search facility. Just click on the magnifying glass at the top of the page and type in the term you wish to search for. You'll see a list of relevant pages - like this.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par taj25 le lun 26/12/2016 - 11:16

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the woman who discovered radium (the woman that discovered radium) if this sentence are not correct. tell me why thanks hussain

Soumis par taj25 le lun 28/11/2016 - 08:39

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"an eight-year-old boy who attempted to rob a sweet shop" hi peter i need clarify about this question. why you using "a sweet shop" instead of " at sweet shop" my question is why don't use "at". if it will use "at" correct or not correct. thanks

Soumis par amol le lun 21/11/2016 - 12:19

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Dear Sir, Kindly let me know about the uses of "What" as a relative pronoun.

Hello amol,

I'm afraid 'what' is not used as a relative pronoun. Are you perhaps asking about cleft sentences? The Cambridge Dictionary has a good explanation of this - see their Word order: structures page, specifically the Wh-cleft sentences section.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team