Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses. The most common relative pronouns are who, whom, whose, which, that. The relative pronoun we use depends on what we are referring to and the type of relative clause.
people and sometimes pet animals
defining and non-defining
animals and things
defining and non-defining; clause referring to a whole sentence
people, animals and things; informal
for people and animals usually; sometimes for things in formal situations
defining and non-defining
people in formal styles or in writing; often with a preposition; rarely in conversation; used instead of who if who is the object
defining and non-defining
no relative pronoun
when the relative pronoun defines the object of the clause
(In the examples, the relative pronoun is in brackets to show where it is not essential; the person or thing being referred to is underlined.)
We don’t know the person who donated this money.
We drove past my old school, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
He went to the school (that) my father went to.
The Kingfisher group, whose name was changed from Woolworths earlier this year, includes about 720 high street shops. Superdrug, which last week announced that it is buying Medicare, is also part of the group.
The parents (whom/who/that) we interviewed were all involved in education in some way.
Relative pronouns: who
We use who in relative clauses to refer to people, and sometimes to pet animals. We use it to introduce defining and non-defining relative clauses:
I think there’d be a lot of children who’d love to have a climbing wall in school. (defining)
That’s the dog who doesn’t like me. (defining; referring to a pet animal)
There’s this guy at work, who’s one of my friends, well he’s never been on a train. (non-defining)
Subjects and objects
Who can act as the subject or the object of the relative clause:
She’s going out with a bloke who’s in the army. (who refers to a bloke and is the subject of is in the relative clause; bloke is an informal word for a man)
The woman who I saw yesterday was Sheila. (who refers to the woman and is the object of saw in the relative clause)
Who + prepositions
We can use who as the complement of a preposition:
It was Cath who Ian gave the keys to. It wasn’t me. (who refers to Cath and is the complement of the preposition to)
We put the preposition at the end of the relative clause, and not immediately before who:
Of all my friends, she’s the one who I know I can rely on.
the one on who I know I can rely.
Who with collective groups of people
We often use who with collective human nouns (e.g. committee, government, group, panel, police, team):
Nicola phoned the fire brigade, who then alerted the police and social workers.
We do not use who for things:
There are some very good art books which you can get ideas from.
There are some very good art books who you can get ideas from.
Relative pronouns: whom
We use whom in formal styles or in writing to refer to people when the person is the object of the verb. It is much more common in writing than in speaking:
The response of those managers whom I have consulted has been very positive and we are looking forward to meeting together. (whom refers to those managers and is the object of consulted in the relative clause)
She was a celebrated actress whom he had known and loved, on and off, almost since her first appearance on the stage.
Whom + prepositions
The most common use of whom is with a preposition. We can use whom as the complement of a preposition:
The first book was a terrible historical novel for children which was turned down by every publisher to whom it was sent. (whom refers to every publisher and is the complement of the preposition to)
Drama in schools is particularly good for pupils for whom English is a second language.
We put the preposition before whom.
Relative pronoun: whose
We usually use whose as a relative pronoun to indicate possession by people and animals. In more formal styles we can also use it for things.
We use whose before nouns instead of a possessive expression (my, your, his, her, its, our, their, x’s) in defining and non-defining clauses:
He’s marrying a girl whose family don’t seem to like him. (The family of the girl he’s marrying don’t seem to like him.)
There was me and there was Kate, whose party it was, and then there were two other people. (It was Kate’s party.)
It is a rambling Tudor house, whose sitting room looks out over a wonderful walled garden. (The sitting room of the house looks out over …)
Whose + prepositions
We can use whose + noun as the complement of a preposition:
Kate, whose sister I used to shared a house with, has gone to work in Australia. (whose sister refers to Kate and is the complement of with)
We can put the preposition immediately before the relative pronoun (more formal written styles) or at the end of the relative clause (more informal).
Relative pronouns: which
We use which in relative clauses to refer to animals and to things. We use it to introduce defining and non-defining relative clauses. We always use which to introduce relative clauses when they refer to a whole sentence or clause:
You need to tick the box which says yes. (defining)
He won’t have much time to prepare for the meeting, which is this afternoon. (non-defining)
She had to get up and walk all the way to the other side of the room, which isn’t easy with a bad back. (which refers to the whole sentence before it)
We use which or that, not what:
Another activity which/that I have chosen is photography.
Another activity what I have chosen is photography.
Subjects and objects
Which can act as the subject or the object of the relative clause:
The new sports complex, which will be built on the site of the old power station, will provide facilities for cricket, soccer, bowls and badminton. (which refers to the new sports complex and is the subject of will be built in the relative clause)
It was the same picture which I saw at the National Gallery. (which refers to the same picture and is the object of saw in the relative clause)
Which + prepositions
We can use which as the complement of a preposition:
Early in the Autumn Term there is a reception at which you can meet current staff and students. (which refers to a reception and is the complement of at)
Close by, in the churchyard, is the famous Rudston stone, from which the village takes its name. (which refers to the famous Rudston stone and is the complement of from)
We can put the preposition immediately before the relative pronoun (more formal) or at the end of the relative clause (more informal).
Which referring to a whole sentence
Relative clauses referring to a whole sentence are always introduced by which:
There’s going to be a new headteacher in September, which is good. It’s time for a change.
[talking about a playschool for young children]
It’s lovely and clean there, and there are lots of toys that he can play with and he’s so happy.B:
Which is much more important.
Relative pronouns: that
We use that instead of who, whom or which in relative clauses to refer to people, animals and things. We use it to introduce defining clauses only. That is more informal than who, whom or which:
We met somebody last night that did the speech therapy course two years after you. (refers to a person)
The 8.30 is the train that you need to get. (refers to a thing)
She blamed herself for everything that had happened.
Subjects and objects
That can act as the subject or the object of the relative clause:
He finally remembers one lesson that his mum had taught him early – Don’t take money that doesn’t belong to you. (that refers to money and is the subject of belong in the relative clause)
It’s the same cooker that my mother has. (that refers to the same cooker and is the object of has in the relative clause)
That after superlatives
We often use that after superlatives:
The Wimbledon men’s final was the best game of tennis that I’ve ever seen.
That + prepositions
That can refer to the complement of a preposition:
We’ve got some tennis balls that you can play with. (that refers to some tennis balls and is the complement of the preposition with)
Unlike which, whom and whose, we can’t use that with the preposition immediately before it:
We’ve got some tennis balls with that you can play.
No relative pronoun
In informal styles, we often leave out the relative pronoun. We only do this in defining relative clauses, and when the relative pronoun is the object of the verb. We don’t leave out the relative pronoun when it is the subject of the verb nor in non-defining relative clauses:
German is a language which I’ve found hard to learn. (or German is a language I’ve found hard to learn.) (defining relative clause: which is the object)
She’s the singer who I heard on the radio. (or She’s the singer I heard on the radio.) (defining relative clause: who is the object)
There’s a hill which begins three miles after the start of the race. (defining relative clause: which is the subject)
There’s a hill begins three miles after the start of the race.
Sir James, whose birthday is on February 26, plans to lay on a big party. (non-defining relative clause)
No relative pronoun + preposition
In defining relative clauses, we can also leave out the relative pronoun when it is the complement of a preposition. When we do this, we always put the preposition at the end of the relative clause:
She was at the garden party which I was telling you about. (or She was at the garden party about which I was telling you. or She was at the garden party I was telling you about.) (defining relative clause: which is the complement of about)
Relative pronouns: when, where and why
In informal language, we often use where, when or why to introduce defining relative clauses instead of at which, on which or for which.
(… a restaurant at which the food is excellent)
(… a day on which I don’t feel rushed …)
(… the reason for which the shop is closed …)
Relative pronouns: typical errors
We can’t use that instead of who, whom or which in non-defining relative clauses:
It gives me a good chance to improve my Italian, which has become a little bit rusty.
It gives me a good chance to improve my Italian, that has become a little bit rusty.
We don’t use what as a relative pronoun:
So, he can make himself easily understood in the two languages, which helps a lot.
So, he can make himself easily understood in the two languages, what helps a lot.
We don’t use who for things:
She’s written some great cookery books which have got pictures of delicious-looking recipes.
She’s written some great cookery books who have got pictures of delicious-looking recipes.
Take care to spell which correctly: not ‘wich’.
(Relative pronouns von English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press.)
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