Relative Pronouns

What are Relative Pronouns?

Relative pronouns are words that act as bridges to connect relative clauses to independent clauses. What are relative clauses? They are a type of dependent or subordinate clause, sometimes called adjective clauses because they provide additional details or description to the subject of the independent clause that they’re connected to.

Remember that we only refer to groups of words as clauses when two or more of them comprise a compound sentence. Otherwise, an independent clause that doesn’t have other clauses attached to it is simply a sentence. Dependent clauses, on the other hand, have at least one subject and one verb but can’t stand alone as complete sentences. Relative clauses begin with relative pronouns.

Let’s read the sentence below:

  • Please bring me a jewelry box that is bigger than this one.

The relative clause “that is bigger than this one” describes the jewelry box that the speaker wants. The relative pronoun “that” connects the relative clause to the main independent clause “Please bring me a jewelry box.”

There aren’t a lot of relative pronouns in the English language, so it won’t be difficult to remember them. The basic relative pronouns are: who, whom, whose, that, and which. Why, where, and when can also function as relative pronouns but this usage isn’t as common.

Let’s look at more examples of relative pronouns in sentences:

  • They have a cat whose thick fur makes it look like a lion.
  • Children who blatantly talk back to their parents are rare in Asia.
  • It is a mysterious and terrible creature that lives in the marshes.
  • I want to live in a town where there are many lakes and parks.
  • We should go to Sapa during the few weeks a year when it has snow.

Relative Pronouns Rules

Who and WhomTo avoid confusion, it’s important to remember that the word “who” functions as a subject, while “whom” is an object. We use both to represent people and never objects. Nevertheless, “whom” isn’t commonly used in speech and is typically found in academic or professional writing. Let’s look at the following examples:

Relative clauses with Who:

– We traveled with the Socorro’s who are so much fun.
– Alfredo presented his proposal to Ms. Patsy, who was his old boss, and felt a bit nervous.
– The man who came by was an old acquaintance of mine.

Relative clauses with Whom:

– The woman whom you called wasn’t exactly forthcoming.
– The immigration officer to whomI was assigned was a great help.
– My old friend Dana whom I met again during alumni week is a mom of three now.
That and WhichGenerally, we use “that” to express important information, while we use “which” as the correct pronoun to express information that isn’t essential. Let’s look at the following sentence:

– The house, which has a wonderful garden, looks majestic.

If the relative clause was removed, “The house looks majestic” remains. We don’t know as much about the house, but the sentence still retains its core meaning. Since the relative clause is not essential, “which” is used. This kind of clause is called a nonrestrictive or nonessential clause. Let’s look at the next sentence:

– Heather lived in a cottage that had an attached greenhouse.

If the relative clause is removed, we are left with “Heather lived in a cottage.” This time, the meaning is different. Without the information about the greenhouse, the cottage is just any cottage. We also use the pronoun “that.” The reason is that the relative clause plays a significant role in what the sentence means. This kind of clause is called a restrictive clause.

Restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses can both utilize “which.” In many instances, “that” and “which” are interchangeable when used in restrictive clauses. Just take note that non-restrictive relative clauses are separated from the main clause by commas.
WhosePossessive pronouns are used to describe ownership, which could be things or qualities. Typically, we use “whose” when the subject who owns something is a person, and we use “which” when the subject is an animal or a thing. However, it has become common practice to use “whose” for both people and things.

– Miss Mandy comforted the boy whose arm got hurt at the playground.
– I met the couple whose dog was lost in the park.
– My boyfriend works with that man at the party whose name I can’t recall.
Table of Rules for Relative Pronouns
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Examples of Relative Pronouns

1. As Subjects

  • The manor that is on top of the cliff belongs to my family.
  • Most of the people who live here enjoy surfing.
  • I accepted a job that has flexible hours and a supportive team.
  • They’re looking for an assistant who is quick on their feet.
  • My kids want to go to a water park which has gigantic slides.

2. As Objects

  • The notice that Arden received was two weeks late.
  • Jung-look dated a boy who Lyon had worked with.
  • Leah loved the bag that Ilaya bought for her.
  • We work in the building which Harriet sold last year.
  • I’m so sad because the venue which we liked is booked for the month.

3. Possessive

  • The camper whose wheels are flat is a prop for the shoot.
  • Bare Holdings, Inc. is famous as a company whose projects are avante garde.
  • Zoraida has dated several men whose eating habits were icky.
  • When you see a school whose iron gate is ruined, you’re in the right place.
  • The boy whose clothes are soiled has been missing for three months!
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Relative Pronouns Exercises with Answers

Exercise on Relative Pronouns

A. Fill in the blanks with the correct answers to complete each sentence. More than one relative noun is possible.

1. The ceremony, __________ started at 9, and ended with a short but touching documentary.

2. They can prove their claim __________ Mr. Aguas was there with some CCTV files.

3. We are looking for someone __________ can take care of the house all summer.

4. I’ll take you to a dessert place __________ served the best gelato in town.

5. I just saw the dress __________ you wanted and it’s 35% off right now!

B. Identify if the relative pronoun in bold is a subject or an object.

1. We’re looking for someone who can speak Spanish or Korean.

2. I’m really crazy about the jewelry that I ordered last week. What a steal!

3. The toy which I’ve had since I was 6 was finally broken.

4. Daniel saw the girl who worked with James driving an expensive motorcycle.

5. Unfortunately, the course that she wanted to enroll in is at full capacity.


Exercise A.

1. The ceremony, which started at 9, ended with a short but touching documentary.

2. They can prove their claim that Mr. Aguas was there with some CCTV files.

3. We are looking for someone who/that can take care of the house all summer.

4. I’ll take you to a dessert place that/which serves the best gelato in town.

5. I just saw the dress that/which you wanted and it’s 35% off right now!

Exercise B

1. who can speak Korean – subject

2. that I ordered last week – object

3. which I’ve had since I was 6 was finally broken – object

4. who worked with James – subject

5. that she wanted to enroll in – subject

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Relative Pronouns List

Relative pronouns are the identifiers of relative clauses. If the function of the clause is to define, describe, or modify the subject of the main clause, they are not separated by commas from the rest of the sentence. If this type of relative clause is omitted from the sentence, the sentence would remain grammatically correct even though its meaning would have changed.

There are only a few relative pronouns in English, each one with a designated function. Let’s take a look at the table of rules below:

Table of Relative Pronouns Listed According to Type

Advice for ESL Students & English Language Learners

Use Grammar ListsEnglish learning tools such as lists, tables, and charts can serve well as grammar guides. They’re not complete substitutes for books, but they can give easy-to-use versions of grammar lessons. They are “bite-sized,” so to speak, and are excellent for cross-checking and reviewing. The best way to use them is to create your own lists, which by default are customized to your learning pace and preferences.
Use Audio-Visual ResourcesSelf-studying is inevitable when learning languages. You can’t depend solely on traditional English classes because the hours spent in classrooms are quite minimal. To maximize the benefits of independent learning, you must use the right tools. Incorporating English language media into your regimen is one example. You will acquire exposure to how English speakers (native or otherwise) use the language in various contexts: social, academic, professional, and so on. This will help significantly in vocabulary acquisition and sentence construction, granted that you consume media with the intention to pick up language elements from what you are watching or listening to.
Practical UseYour teachers can’t speak English for you. Neither can books. But the way to achieve fluency in speaking is to use the language as often as possible. You could achieve high proficiency in grammar but still have a hard time talking at length. Sure, most English language learners live in areas where English isn’t commonly spoken, and you could be one of them, but there’s always a way to create your own English environment. Put together a study group with fellow students and cultivate friendships with both native and non-native speakers. Daily English interactions can greatly improve your proficiency in a way that books can’t.
Table of Advice for English Learners
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Common Errors Made by English Learners

Common ErrorsExplanation
that vs. whichA relative pronoun pair whose uses are often the source of errors are “that” and “which.”

To avoid confusing the two, “That” comes at the beginning of a restrictive clause, which is a clause that is important to what the sentence means. ‘Which” appears at the start of a nonrestrictive clause, which contains additional yet unimportant details about the noun it modifies. “Which” can sometimes be used in place of “that” in restrictive sentences, but we never use “that” in nonrestrictive sentences.
who vs. thatThere are books, writers, and style guides who don’t think it’s acceptable to use the word “that” to refer to people. It’s not wrong to do it. It’s grammatically correct, although other people might disagree and swear it’s grammatically wrong. Perhaps, it shouldn’t matter during a casual conversation, but use “who” in academic and professional writing, just in case.
antecedent-pronoun placementAlways put the relative pronoun (i.e. the entire relative clause) after the noun it modifies or its antecedents. This ensures that the meaning you want to convey is clear and that your listener or reader receives it the same way.
compound relative pronounsRelative pronouns “whoever”, ‘whomever”, “whichever”, and “whatever” may look complex, but their usage is simple. We use them to represent nouns or subjects that are more than one in number. Besides this, they function just like their root words.
Relative Pronouns Common Errors Table

Learning Strategies and Best Practices with Relative Pronouns

The following list includes points to remember when studying relative pronouns:

  1. To erase confusion between who and whom, think about subject and object pronouns. Subject pronouns are I, he, she, we, and they. Object pronouns are me, him, her, us, and them. Try to replace the word that the relative clauses modify with a subject or object pronoun and find out which one is more sensible. If a subject pronoun makes more sense, use who, and if an object pronoun makes more sense, use whom.
  2. Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses. They are at the beginning of each relative clause. They can function as subjects, objects, and possessives.
  3. Don’t use commas to separate a restrictive clause from the main clause.
  4. American English doesn’t commonly use the relative pronoun whom. They could pop up in conversations, but they are more commonly found in writing.

Additionally, it is important for learners to properly understand interrogative pronouns and intensive pronouns.

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Relative Pronouns Frequently Asked Questions

The role of relative pronouns is similar to conjunctions. They connect the relative clause to the main clause.  For example, “He owns the car that has a big sticker of a Peace sign

It’s both. If pronouns like who, whom, whose, what, and which are used in questions, then they are interrogative pronouns. If they are used to begin relative clauses, then they are relative pronouns.

The types of pronouns vary in number depending on the book. But here they are in a nutshell:
1. Relative Pronouns
2. Possessive Pronouns
3. Reflexive Pronouns
4. Demonstrative Pronouns
5. Interrogative Pronouns
6. Indefinite Pronouns
7. Personal Pronouns
8. Subject Pronouns
9. Object Pronouns

Note that some books consider Reciprocal and Intensive Pronouns as their own types, while others list them down as sub-types.

For more comprehensive content regarding each type of pronoun, do check out’s Grammar Page for dedicated articles on all grammar topics.

Who, whom, whose, that, and which are the five most common relative pronouns. They typically refer to singular subjects. When we refer to subjects that are more than one in number, we use whoever, whomever, whichever, and whatever. When, where, and why can also be utilized as relative pronouns, but this kind of usage is rare. For example, “I want to watch the movie where people were stuck in a train going around the world in a loop.

Subordinate clauses and dependent clauses are one and the same thing. They’re both variations of the same label. On the other hand, relative or adjective clauses are a kind of dependent clause; other kinds are adverbial and noun clauses.

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