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What Are Relative Pronouns? (with Examples)

What Are Relative Pronouns? (with Examples)

A relative pronoun is a pronoun that introduces an adjective clause. In English, the relative pronouns are:
  • That
  • Which
  • Who
  • Whom
  • Whose
A relative pronoun is used to start a description for a noun. (This description is called an adjective clause or a relative clause.) The description comes after the noun to:

(1) identify it.

For example:
  • The lady who made your dress is waiting outside.
  • (The noun is the lady. The relative pronoun is who. The adjective clause identifying the lady is shaded.)

  • I saw the dog which ate the cake.
  • (The noun being identified is the dog.)

  • We did not know the tune that had been playing.
  • (The noun being identified is the tune.)
(2) tell us more information about it.

For example:
  • Mrs Miggins, who owns a pie shop, is waiting outside.
  • (The noun is Mrs Miggins. The adjective clause tells us some information about her.)

  • I rode my bike, which now had two flat tyres, back home.
  • (The noun is my bike. The adjective clause tells us some information about it.)

Relative Pronouns (for People and Things)

Your choice of relative pronoun is determined by whether it refers to a person or a thing. Your choices are:
  • Who and whom refer to people.
  • Which refers to things.
  • That and whose refer to people or things.
Note: Be aware that a fair proportion of your readers will not like you using that for people. It is good advice to avoid using that for people, especially in formal writing.

Relative Pronouns (in Different Cases)

Your choice of relative pronoun is not just determined by whether it refers to people or things. It is also determined by the role the relative pronoun plays in its clause. For example:

People or ThingsSubjective CaseObjective CasePossessive Case
People who

(The boy who rang the bell)
whom

(The boy whom you met)
whose

(The boy whose bike was stolen)
Things which

(The candle which melted)
which

(The candle which you made)
whose

(The candle whose wick had snapped)
People or Things that

(The dog that bit the postman)
that

(The dog that the postman hates)
whose

(The dog whose bark sounds like cough)

Prepositions with Which and Whom

When whom or which is the object of a preposition, you can start the adjective clause with the preposition (as opposed to the relative pronoun). For example:
  • The council will meet Professor Dobbs, from whom they expect an apology.
  • My greatest concern was the tide, against which we stood little chance.
It is not a mistake to leave the preposition at the end of the clause, but be aware that some of your readers might think it looks a little informal, especially if the preposition also ends the sentence.

Therefore, in formal writing, try to avoid ending a sentence in a preposition. However, if doing so makes your sentence sound stilted, then either try to reword your sentence or just leave your preposition at the end.

Read more about ending sentences in prepositions.
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Note

When to Use Commas around an Adjective Clause

When an adjective clause identifies a noun, it is known as a restrictive clause. Restrictive clauses are not offset with commas. For example:
  • When I was down town, I saw the boy who gave you a black eye.
  • (There are no commas around this clause. It is required to identify the boy. The phrase the boy who gave you a black eye is one entity.)
When an adjective clause adds information about a noun, it is known as a non-restrictive clause. Non-restrictive clauses are offset with commas. For example:
  • I saw Simon Baker, who was with his sister, when I was down town.
  • (This clause is offset with commas. It is not required to identify Simon Baker. It is just additional information about him.)
Read more about using commas with which, who, and that.

You Can't Add Information with a Clause Starting with That

An adjective clause starting with that is only used to identify a noun. You cannot use it to add information.