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 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

Soumis par bguldibi le jeu 17/11/2016 - 08:51

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She wrote a best-selling book, the name of ............... I've completely forgotten. for tis test question the answer stated as 'which' (but not 'that'). But ı think it is talking about the book. Why not the answer is 'which or that' since the course explanation at the top is "We use who and whom for people, and which for things. Or we can use that for people or things."

Hello bguldibi,

There are three reasons why 'that' is not possible here.

First of all, we use 'that' as an alternative to 'who' and 'which' in defining relative clauses, not non-defining relative clauses. This sentence is an example of a non-defining relative clause.

Second, we cannot replace 'whose' with 'that', and 'of which' is an alternative way to say 'whose':

She wrote a best-selling book, whose name I've completely forgotten.

Third, we do not use 'that' when the relative pronoun is part of a phrase with a preposition such as 'of which', 'to which', 'from whom', 'for whom' etc.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Andrew international le lun 07/11/2016 - 17:42

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Dear Sir Please let me know whether this sentence is correct. A boy helped me to carry bag. He is very poor. The boy who helped me to carry my bag is very poor. My question is : one must change the indefinite article ' A' to 'THE' A boy should change to The boy. Regards Andrew international

Soumis par Peter M. le mar 08/11/2016 - 06:55

En réponse à par Andrew international

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Hello Andrew international,

The article changes as you say because the relative clause defines which boy is being discussed. However, the sentence would still not be correct as you need a possessive adjective before 'bag': ...to carry my bag...

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par pyramid le lun 07/11/2016 - 13:25

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Mr. kirk, who is a teacher, is my brother. what is WHO relative pronoun or interrogative pronoun the word WHO is used for a noun ' Kirk' please help

Hello pyramid,

In that sentence (about me!), 'who' is a relative pronoun. If the sentence were a question, it would be asking for some kind of information. This sentence states a fact; it doesn't pose any question.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par RaghavGohil le mar 18/10/2016 - 19:21

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Hello, I have two questions: When to use which or that ? When to use who or that ? Does the restrictive and non-restrictive clause rules are applicable?

Soumis par Peter M. le mer 19/10/2016 - 07:11

En réponse à par RaghavGohil

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Hello RaghavGohil,

As the information on the page says:

We use who and whom for people, and which for things.
Or we can use that for people or things.

That is only used in restrictive relative clauses; in non-restrictive clauses we use who or which.

In restrictive relative clauses in terms of meaning there is no difference. In terms of style and register, none of these are informal but I would say that that is less common in formal writing.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Birgit le ven 14/10/2016 - 10:26

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How can I explain Japanese students to use 'where' in the sentence: Tokyo, the place ............ (where) we first met and not: at where, in where, which

Hello Birgit,

I would probably insist that this is a pattern that they just need to learn. The word 'there' collocates with 'the place' (or other places, e.g. 'the city', 'the school', etc.) and is the relative pronoun that begins a relative clause.

It's of course possible to say 'Tokyo, the city in which ...', but it sounds formal and native speakers generally find it easier to say 'where'.

I'm not sure if this will help you, but I hope it does!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Keeplearning_english le mer 05/10/2016 - 17:00

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(1) There was champa,rose,jasmine and lotus. (2) There were champa,rose,jasmine and lotus. Tell me Which of these two is correct?

Hello Keeplearning_english,

The first of these is correct. When the items in the list are singular we use a singular verb. When the list is mixed we make the verb agree with the first item in the list:

There was champa,rose,jasmine and lotus. [all singualar]

There were roses, tulips and daffodils. [all plural]

There was a rose, four tulips and three daffodils. [mixed; the first is singular]

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Andrew international le mer 05/10/2016 - 10:39

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Dear Sir I did your grammar exercise under 'relative pronouns' and I answered it well. Now I have a question - that is 'which relative pronoun is used for animals ? Could I used 'that or which' eg. I have a puppy which/that is 3 months old. Is that correct? Please let me know. Thank you. Andrew international

Soumis par Peter M. le jeu 06/10/2016 - 06:23

En réponse à par Andrew international

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Hello Andrew international,

Congratulations on your exercise result! For animals we usually use either 'which' or 'that' and not 'who'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Giada le dim 11/09/2016 - 12:33

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Hello! I have two questions, and I'm sorry if they've been already asked before. 1. Talking about whom and which accompained by a preposition, in this case "with", you wrote the following example: "We bought a chainsaw, with which we cut up all the wood." but when you wrote the same example putting "with" at the end of the clause or using the relative pronoun "that" instead of "which", you changed the placement of "up": "We bought a chainsaw, which we cut all the wood up with." and "We bought a chainsaw that we cut all the wood up with." Can you explain me why, please? 2. In the explanation above, it's made clear that in modern english "whom" has been mostly replaced by "who". In the clause "They had four children, all of ............... went to university.", "whom" is considered the right answer. I answered correctly, but just because it "sounded better". Is "who or that" considered wrong because it includes "that"? If there was a "who" option, would that be considered right? "They had four children, all of who went to university." sounds quite weird to me. Thank you for dedicating me your time and your knowledge and for your hard work. I've found this site incredibly useful. Greetings!

Soumis par Kirk le dim 11/09/2016 - 13:51

En réponse à par Giada

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Hello Giada,

In 1, the issue is that 'cut up' is separable phrasal verb, i.e. a phrasal verb whose particle can be used just after the main verb or later in the phrase. You can read more about this and phrasal verbs in general on our phrasal verbs and two- and three-part verbs pages.

In 2, only 'whom' is correct because after prepositions (in this case, the preposition 'of'), only 'whom' is correct, not 'that' or 'who'.

We're glad you find LearnEnglish useful!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Keeplearning_english le sam 10/09/2016 - 09:25

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Please suggest me on this question 'an' is ___ article. Which article should I use here?

Soumis par Sunny21parikh le jeu 11/08/2016 - 15:03

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When to use such...as or such..that Ex read such books as can enrich your knowledge. Or read such books that can enrich your knowledge. Could nt find any article on this site so....

Hello Sunny21parikh,

In this example both forms are possible and have the same meaning but 'such as' is quite old-fashioned, I would say, when used in this way.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sunny21parikh,

Both of these forms have various meanings. For example, in the sentence you gave 'such as' means something like 'such books which', whereas in other sentences it can mean 'like' or 'similar to'. I'm afraid it's not possible for us to list all of the ways forms like this can be used.

In the comments sections we can explain material on the page which is not clear, or help with specific examples. We can't write long and detailed explanations of multiple uses of multiple phrases.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par May Thu Zaw le mer 10/08/2016 - 17:05

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Hello Sir, Let me ask a question about relative pronoun which. >>Those apples were very expensive.I bought them two days ago. >>>Those apples were very expensive which I bought two days ago. >>>I bought apples two days ago which were very expensive. In two sentences,which one is correct Sir.

Hello May Thu Zaw,

The last sentence is the best. The second sentence separates the relative clause from the noun which it describes in a way which we would not do. The best way to express this would be:

Those apples which I bought two days ago were very expensive.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par neh7272 le mar 12/07/2016 - 13:44

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sir, In the following sentence what does 'such were' refers to? When this bracing elements of craftsmanship ceased to dominate artists' outlook, new technical elements had to be adopted to maintain the intellectual elements in art. Such were linear perspective and anatomy.

Soumis par Kirk le mar 12/07/2016 - 14:47

En réponse à par neh7272

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Hello neh7272,

I find this pair of sentences a bit unnatural, to be honest, but what I understand is that 'such' refers to 'new technical elements'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par suryachaitanya le sam 02/07/2016 - 15:12

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Sir can you please these following clear: The surya whom you met last night is my friend. Vs The surya who you met last night is my friend. I was following wren and martin were it says noun/pronoun followed by who is used to define, limit and restrict the noun/ pronoun. But here "met" verb takes you as the subject and surya is an object. So please make it clear.

Hello suryachaitanya,

Both of the sentences are correct. Traditionally, only 'whom' was considered correct here since it is the object of 'met', but in modern use, 'who' is very commonly used in the place of 'whom'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par nguyen thi hong lien le jeu 16/06/2016 - 08:27

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Thank you the teachers of LearnEnglish – British Council always helpful we understand way clear to use indefinite pronouns in english.

Soumis par Afia shakir khan le mar 19/04/2016 - 07:24

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hello, Peter is the man Whom we want to be our next captain. Peter is the man Who we want to be our next captain. sir please tell me which one is right.

Soumis par Ng Teck Fei le jeu 16/06/2016 - 15:30

En réponse à par Afia shakir khan

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Peter is the candidate who we are expecting to be our next captain. The second is true. The subject (He, she, it) does actions, while the object (him, her) receives actions. "Who" is a subject, but "Whom" is an object. Therefore, The first is wrong.

Soumis par Hugong le lun 21/03/2016 - 23:15

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Hi I am confused about how to describe the following situation. There was a bus running through me and I was wondering what specific purpose that kind of bus in general is used for. How should I ask such a question? 1) is that the bus used for... 2) are that the buses used for... 3) is that buses used for 4) That is the buses used for... Isn't it? 5) That are the buses used for... Aren't it?

Soumis par Kirk le mar 22/03/2016 - 06:43

En réponse à par Hugong

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Hello Hugong,

Sentence 1 is the only one that is grammatically correct – note that 'bus' and 'that' are singular forms, whereas 'buses' is plural. I'm not sure I understand what you mean, i.e. I don't understand 'a bus running through me', but I think the question you're looking for might be 'What is that bus used for?'

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Afia shakir khan le mer 16/03/2016 - 06:15

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sir i have doubts please clear it. 1. They had four children, all of ............... went to university. why there is 'whom' please tell me 2. He tore up the photograph, ............... upset me. why there is only 'which' please guide me

Hello Afia shakir khan,

When we talk about people, we use 'who' or 'whom'. When we talk about things, we use 'which'. 'Children' are people, and so we use 'whom' here, and 'the photograph' is a thing, and so we use 'which'.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

i know sir for subject 'who' and for object 'whom' but in this sentence "they had four children, all of whom went to study. why can't we use 'who' here. and 2nd sentence why can't we use 'that' instead of which. please elaborate.

Hello Afia shakir khan,

'whom' is the object of the preposition 'of' – 'whom' is used after prepositions. 'that' is not correct in the second sentence because the relative pronoun refers to an action or idea (him tearing up the photo), not to the photo itself. When an idea or action is referred, to 'which' is used.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par chiarencher le dim 28/02/2016 - 14:07

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Hello sir, I'm confused.when do we use who or whom? Eg.The boy who ran past me was the chairman's son.v.s The boy whom ran past me was the chairman's son. Please do reply. I really don't understand!

Hello chiarencher,

'whom' can only be used when it refers to the object of a sentence – you can see examples above on this page. In the sentence you ask about, only the relative pronoun 'who' is correct because in that position, it refers to 'the boy', and 'the boy' is the subject of the verb 'ran'; there is no object.

If you changed the sentence a bit, you could use 'whom', e.g. 'The boy whom I spoke to was the chairman's son'. In this case, 'whom' refers to 'the boy', but 'the boy' is the object of 'I spoke to' so 'whom' can be used.

Very often we don't use 'whom', as it sounds a bit formal; instead you're more likely to hear 'The boy who I spoke to was the chairman's son'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Tapan gahlot le mar 02/02/2016 - 17:20

En réponse à par kashifi

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hello, learn english team when noun Preposition noun comes before a relative pronoun. 1: It is a collection of words which makes/make complete sense. here antecedent will be collection or words and why?

Soumis par Peter M. le mer 03/02/2016 - 06:37

En réponse à par Tapan gahlot

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Hello Tapan gahlot,

The reference here is actually extrinsic. This means that the pronoun 'it' refers to something outside the sentence. This could be something in the real world (the speaker is looking at a text) or something in a previous sentence. Not every pronoun refers to something within the sentence.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Peter Appreciate your quick response. But confused about the verb here, should I use make or makes ? And please clarify why Thanks in advance Peter.

Hello Tapan gahlot,

Both are possible here. If you say 'makes' then you are talking about the collection making sense. If you say 'make' then you are saying that the words which make up the collection all make sense.

 


Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Soumis par CalmWhale le dim 27/12/2015 - 02:55

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Hi English Team, This question is related to my initial question. How could someone identify what (subject) performs the action (verb) in a sentence? In this case, the noun/pronoun a verb is associated with. Also, can a verb refer to another verb as its cause (subject) in a sentence? And, can a sentence have more than one subject? Thank you.

Hello CalmWhale,

You can identify the subject through agreement (singular, plural) and by form in the case of pronouns (subject vs object forms). Word order is also important in English - the subject generally precedes the verb and the object follows the verb in active sentences. Most important is the context, which should help to make the meaning clear. Although it is possible to construct grammatically correct sentences with ambiguous subjects and/or objects, speakers avoid this for obvious reasons.

It is possible for infinitives to act as subject complements after 'be':

What is important is to learn from your experiences.

Usually when we want to use a verb as the subject we make a gerund - a noun made from a verb.

A verb can have several subjects, just as one subject can have several verbs:

Paul, John, Sue and Terry went to the shop.

The subjects here are 'Paul, John, Sue and Terry'.

Paul went to the shop and bought a paper.

'Paul' is the subject; 'went' and 'bought' are the verbs.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par CalmWhale le dim 27/12/2015 - 02:35

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Hi English Grammar Team (1) In the sentence - He tore up the photograph, which upset me - what upsets the speaker (What is "which" referring to?), is it the action (tore), or the "photograph" (object). Logically, I think it is the action (tore) that upsets the speaker. (2) Consider this sentence - He tore up the photograph which/that upsets me - what upsets the speaker in this case? I think the verb (upsets) is performed by the object/subject (photograph), so the speaker is being upset by the photograph, not the action (tore). If I'm correct in question (2), is it because of the verb (upsets, instead of upset) and because there is no comma ( , ) separating the object (photograph) from the verb (upsets)? Else, why are they (which, that) [not] referring to "photograph" instead of "tore"? Thank you.

Hello CalmWhale,

In your first sentence the relative clause describes the whole of the main clause. In other words, the fact that the person ripped up the photograph upsets the speaker. It is not specified why it is upsetting, as the whole clause is being referred to. Non-defining relative clauses (note the comma) can refer to the whole of the preceding clause in this way.

In your second sentence the relative clause describes the photograph - the photograph which has been ripped up is the upsetting photograph, not some other one. Here the relative clause is a defining relative clause, which is why there is no comma.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team