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 neha_sri le jeu 26/03/2015 - 13:40

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Hi! I am studing english in british council ,new delhi.I asked a question to my teacher and she could not answer it. my query is, what is the difference between the two below sentences? people do not like crying boy. people do not like boy crying. Here in the second sentence crying is participle. Thanks!

Soumis par Peter M. le jeu 26/03/2015 - 20:10

En réponse à par neha_sri

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Hi neha_sri,

There is a slight difference in meaning here.

People do not like the crying boy. - here, 'crying' is an adjective and describes the boy; the sentence means something like 'People do not like the boy who is crying'. [i.e. he is crying now]

People do not like the boy crying. - here, the meaning is different; the sentence means something like 'People do not like it when the boy cries'. [i.e. he does not cry all the time, but when he does people do not like it]

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par asian games le jeu 19/03/2015 - 02:42

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good morning!!! i get a trouble in using relative pronoun "that". i wonder whether "that" can replace for "where and when, what which, whom" or only replace for "who, whom, which". Please help me to understand it more. Many thanks to you!!!

Hello asian games,

We can use 'that' in defining relative clauses, but not in non-defining relative clauses.

'That' can replace 'who' (for peope) or 'which' (for things). It cannot replace 'whose' (possessive).

'When' and 'where' are not relative pronouns; they are relative adverbs. 'That' cannot replace them directly, but can be used with a preposition:

This is the house where I lived as a child.

This is the house that [which] I lived in as a child.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

oh I see. Thank you so much. one more problem about Cleft sentence, i can use "where or when" to replace for "that" if i want to emphasize adverb phrase Example 1: It was at the shop that she bought him a present. (1) It was at the shop where she bought him present. (2) Example 2: It was at 8.00 a.m that the meeting started. (1) It was at 8.00 a.m when the meeting started. (2) Please show me number 1 or number 2 is correct. Thank you in advance!!!

Hello asian games,

In 1, the preposition 'in' is needed at the end of the sentence. In 2, the word 'present' needs an article before it. 3 and 4 are correct, though 3 is more common.

Best regards,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par sethjoey le ven 13/03/2015 - 06:03

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Hi, I'm learning something new... :) more power to your team!

Soumis par ranjan v bharadwaj le lun 09/03/2015 - 06:18

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Hi BC team, My query is in regards to the quiz on 'relative prounouns'. In 3rd question- "She's the only person WHO/THAT really understands me" is supposedly a correct statement. My question is can we use word 'that' while reffering to subject 'she'(in above eg.) thanks in advance.

Hello ranjan,

The answer correct; this is explained near the top of this page, where it says:

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

Best regards,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team
 

 

Soumis par neha_sri le lun 23/02/2015 - 19:45

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hi! responsibility to take care of her is on you. responsibility is on you to take care of her. Which one is in correct form and why?

Soumis par Kirk le mar 24/02/2015 - 07:43

En réponse à par neha_sri

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Hello neha_sri,

Either word order is correct, though please note that responsibility should be preceded by the definite article the: e.g. The responsibility to take care of her is on you.

Best regards,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par noura salah le sam 14/02/2015 - 19:53

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HELLO I'd like to know why I can't use( that) in question 4 thanks

Soumis par Kirk le dim 15/02/2015 - 09:35

En réponse à par noura salah

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Hello noura salah,

This is explained under section 6. Using "which" to give more information on our relative clauses page. If it's still unclear after you read through that page, please feel free to ask us about it again.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par neha_sri le dim 08/02/2015 - 16:13

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Hi! "what i am left with,that counts." Can i write the above mentioned sentence like this: What counts is what i am left with.

Soumis par Peter M. le sam 14/02/2015 - 18:13

En réponse à par neha_sri

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Hi nehha_sri,

Yes, that is perfectly correct.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par greyish le mar 03/02/2015 - 08:36

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Hi! I want to know if this sentence" is correct. If it is correct, why does "that" come after ","?

Soumis par Peter M. le mer 04/02/2015 - 11:03

En réponse à par greyish

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Hi greyish,

I don't know which sentence you mean. Can you include the sentence in your question, please?

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par agneshb le sam 24/01/2015 - 01:57

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hi.. I'm not understand about an example for relative pronouns use for. "We had fish and chips, which is my favourite meal" I think it must be changed to "......,which are my favourite meal" am I right? thank you

Soumis par Peter M. le sam 24/01/2015 - 10:40

En réponse à par agneshb

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Hello agneshb,

The singular form here is correct as the noun is 'meal'. 'Fish and chips' is also singular as it describes not a collection of individual chips, but rather a type of meal.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par rosario70 le mar 04/11/2014 - 15:29

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hi teacher, i don't understand why in 4 and 6 i can't use (which or that) too. thanks in advance. regards

Hello rosario70,

In 4, 'which' is the only correct answer because the clause it introduces is referring to not just one word, but the action expressed in the first part of the sentence. When a whole idea is referred to like this, 'which' is used.

'that' is not used with prepositions - only 'who(m)' and 'which' are. That is why 'which' is the only correct answer for number 6.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Shamim Khan le mar 16/09/2014 - 18:27

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Dear Sir, I will be happy if u give me answer of following questions. 1. “Katrina to perform dangerous stunts for Dhoom-3”. What kind of above Sentence is it? Have any structure like this sentence? 2. I want to know detail about the structure below two sentences :- i. Honey tastes sweet. ii. He looks gloomy. 3. Have any grammatical mistake in following sentence? * Because he has to inhale all these fatal elements. 4. Have any difference between adverb & intensifier?

Soumis par somendude le lun 12/01/2015 - 15:46

En réponse à par Shamim Khan

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I think you have to write the sentense like thuis, "Katrina performs dangerous stunts in D3." Why does you make complicated it unnecessary way?

Soumis par Ryan Wong le jeu 11/09/2014 - 13:29

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In Question 5,'They had four children, all of ............... went to university.' may I fill 'them' in the place of 'which' ? Cheers

Hello Ryan Wong,

In order to use 'them' here you would need to split the sentence into two, with a full stop after 'children', or add a conjunction such as 'and'. We cannot join two sentences like this with only a comma in English.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par zagrus le lun 11/08/2014 - 17:18

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Hello Sir, Which of the following sentences is correct: " It is I who am responsible," or " It is I who is responsible." Thanks in advance

Hello zagrus,

This is a very complicated issue and there is no firm consensus on the correct form. The best recourse for us is to look at standard usage, rather than trying to find a fixed rule. Fundamentally, there are two issues here:

  • which pronoun should be used, subject or object
  • whether the verb should agree with the pronoun or with 'who' as a third-person form

This means we have four alternatives. These are below with my comments following each:

It is is I who is responsible. [This is certainly a form which is used widely and is a possible form]

It is I who am responsible. [This is also in use but has a more formal and, perhaps, slightly old-fashioned ring to it; it is a possible form]

It is me who is responsible. [This is probably the most common of the four forms in conversational use; it is a possible form]

It is me who am responsible. [This is not a form which is used and would be incorrect]

You can see that three of the alternatives can be correctly used. However, the whole construction is quite unusual and other constructions would be much more likely, such as:

The person responsible is me.

I'm the one (who's) responsible.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Osman Goni le sam 09/08/2014 - 08:28

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hi dear Would you anyone help me use of "it" and "this" in sentence. Appreciate you. Osman

Soumis par Kirk le dim 10/08/2014 - 06:54

En réponse à par Osman Goni

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Hello Osman,

'it' is a personal pronoun - note that it can act as both a subject and object. 'it' can also act as a dummy subject when there is no obvious subject for a verb.

'this' can be used as a pronoun to refer to something that is near you or which you've just mentioned, and can also be used with a noun as a determiner with the same meaning.

That's a lot of information, but if you look at each of the pages I linked to and study them carefully, I think that should clarify it for you.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

 

Soumis par kazekagesama01 le ven 01/08/2014 - 02:48

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Hey guys, I'm a newcomer here. My name is Ary, I'm 21 years old and I'm from Indonesia. So, I took the quiz on this session but I got confused when I was on the 5th question, which was "They had four children, all of ............... went to university.". Why don't we use "All of which went to university" instead of "All of whom went to university"? and why the word "university" is not on plural form? if on singular form why it is not using an article like "a" or "the". And if you don't mind, would you help me checking my grammar mistakes in this question? :D - Thank you guys for answering.

Hi Ary,

We use 'who' (and 'whom') rather than 'which' when we are talking about people. 'Children' are people, and so the correct pronoun is 'whom' here.

When we say 'go to university' we mean 'study' rather than visit a place. If we use an article ('He went to the university') then we suggest a visit to a building, such a tourist sightseeing or a visitor who wishes to use the library or meet a person who works there. This distinction is true of many public institutions:

go to hospital = be a patient

go to a hospital = visit the place

The same is true of court (the legal institution), school and prison.

I'm afraid it's not possible for us to correct users' posts on LearnEnglish. We are a small team and we receive many posts and comments every day - if we tried to correct them then we would have no time for anything else!

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par platformreg le ven 08/08/2014 - 07:31

En réponse à par Peter M.

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During studying adjective clauses, I am really confused with when to use "that" , "which" and "who", since "that" can be used to identify things and people. Many books have different explanations and standards. Is there any rule when we must use which one in a particular situation? Thank you so much!

Hi platformreg,

In speaking, 'who' tends to be used more often than 'that' (to refer to people), and the same is true for 'which' and 'that' (to refer to things), but you can find many exceptions to this.

In general, I don't think using one or the other will make a big difference in your speaking, though if you're very concerned about this, one thing that can be very useful is to read and listen to texts that are the kinds that you're most likely to speak or write in when you use English. For example, if you're going to study at university in English, read academic papers and watch lectures (see, for example, our Writing for a purpose section or ted.com) and observe how relative pronouns are used.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par patrick ng le lun 21/07/2014 - 08:07

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Hi teachers, I'm a newbie here. First of all, i would like to say millions of "thank you" for the team of this page for your guidance. I do really love this website so much. Based on my understanding, 'which' and 'that' can refer to things. And, 'that' cannot be used in non defining clause.Other than that, any difference between these two words. For intance,'The house that Jack built.' Is it appropriate to use 'which' as well? Another example i taken from my book. 'The dog (which/that) bit him belongs to an old man who lives in that big house. I couldn't understand 'that' can be used in this sentence. Could you please explain these? Thanks.

Hi patrick,

Thanks for your kind feedback - it's always great to hear that people appreciate our work!

There is more information on our relative clauses page that you might find useful, but to answer your questions, there is no difference in meaning between the relative pronouns which and that. But as you observe, they are not completely interchangeable since there are different kinds of relative clauses. Yes, you can say 'The house which Jack built' and for the sentence from your book, both 'that' and 'which' are correct because both can be the antecedent of the defining clause 'which/that bit him'.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par neha_sri le sam 19/07/2014 - 13:14

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Hello Teachers! I get confused when i read or use participles.My question is that the below given sentence is correct or not? There are some serious issues related to business that need to be talked about. In the above sentence that is used for issues or business? Thanks

Hello neha_sri,

The sentence is correct. I'm not sure what you mean by 'participle' here - do you mean 'relative pronouns', like 'that', 'which', 'who' etc?

In this sentence the relative pronoun 'that' refers to the whole phrase 'some serious issues related to business'.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par magettarashid le ven 18/07/2014 - 07:49

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Hello Can you please help me on this: This is George whose his car killed two people. is that a correct sentence..?

Soumis par Kirk le sam 19/07/2014 - 07:45

En réponse à par magettarashid

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Hi magettarashid,

No, that is not correct, though removing just one word, it can be correct: 'This is George, whose car killed two people.' The relative pronoun 'whose' is possessive, and so the possessive adjective 'his' should not be used; it's already clear whose car it is with the word 'whose'.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Sekandar le jeu 17/07/2014 - 08:23

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Hi aboute question number 4, why we cant use " that"? tnx

Soumis par Johnny Nguyen Dn le jeu 17/07/2014 - 17:13

En réponse à par Sekandar

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We do not use 'that' as a subject in this kind of relative clause. It is rule :))

Soumis par Kirk le ven 18/07/2014 - 10:51

En réponse à par Sekandar

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Hi Sekandar,

'that' is not correct in number 4 due to the rule above that states 'But we do not use that as a subject in this kind of relative clause.', which comes after the example about fish and chips.

In number 4, the relative pronoun is the subject of the verb 'upsets', and therefore can only be 'which', not 'that'.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par debabrata k le mer 16/07/2014 - 11:43

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Hello, I have a confusion. "Whom should I approach" or "Who should I approach"--- which one is grammatically correct?

Soumis par Peter M. le mer 16/07/2014 - 23:01

En réponse à par debabrata k

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Hello kdeb_06,

Both are grammatically correct and are perfectly acceptable in modern English.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Sridhar_45 le sam 14/06/2014 - 13:43

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Hello Teacher, I understood a little bit from these, "We bought a chainsaw, which we cut all the wood up with". "We bought a chainsaw that we cut all the wood up with". Could you give in brief. Why can't use "That" in these sentences. She wrote a best-selling book, the name of ............... I've completely forgotten. He tore up the photograph, ............... upset me. And can I use like "He tore up the photograph which upset me" Thank you,

Hello Sridhar_45,

Relative clauses starting with a preposition do not use 'that' as a relative pronoun.  For example:

The house which I was born in. [correct]

The house that I was born in. [correct]

The house in which I was born. [correct]

The house in that I was born. [incorrect]

This is the reason we cannot use 'that' in your first sentence ('...the name of which...').

'That' is only used in defining relative clauses, not non-defining relative clauses. This is the reason we cannot use 'that' in your second example ('...which upset me').  Not also that your first two sentences (about the chainsaw) are different in meaning - the first one, with 'which', is written with a comma and is a non-defining relative clause.  It means that we bought a chainsaw, and we then used it to cut the wood up.  The second sentence is a defining relative clause which tells us which chainsaw we bought - not just any chainsaw, but the on which was used to cut up the wood.

Your final question is similar to this.  With a comma, it is a non-defining relative clause, telling us that the tearing up of the photograph upset you.  Without a comma (your last sentence) tells us that the photograph which was torn up upset you.  This sentence could have 'which' or 'that' as the relative pronoun; the non-defining version can have only 'which'.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Sisi-Eng prono… le ven 16/05/2014 - 11:09

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Hello teacher. I am interested in one sentence. I don´t understand why can´t I use ´´that book´´? She wrote a best-selling book, the name of (which, but no that) I´ve completely forgotten. Thank you for your patience. This is amazing site :)

Hello Sisi,

There are only two relative pronouns that can occur after prepositions (such as the word of in your example): which and whom. In such a case, which is used to refer only to things, and whom refers only to people.

You might find this page at the BBC useful, as it has a lot of examples of these two relative pronouns used in this way.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Kiranpanajkar le mar 13/05/2014 - 10:04

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Hello, I have a confusion. Can we use "that" instead of "who" in the following sentences? the woman who discovered radium an eight-year-old boy who attempted to rob a sweet shop