Relative Pronouns: How to use them in English

Woman with glasses pointing to the right

Relative pronouns are different from personal pronouns in English–the latter just replaces nouns.

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As an example of a personal pronoun, when talking about your friend, Steve, you might occasionally replace his name with the pronoun “he.” It might be more general, but we would still know that you’re talking about a specific person.

If you’ve been studying or speaking English for a while, you’re probably pretty familiar with personal pronouns (I, You, We, They, He, She, It, me, us, him, her, them). However, relative pronouns are different and can be a little more complicated.

So, what are relative pronouns? Let’s dive right in to find out!

(Prefer to watch this lesson on video? Here’s our full length tutorial on “Relative Pronouns in English”):

‘Relative Pronouns in English’:

What are relative pronouns?

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To understand relative pronouns, you must first understand relative clauses. A relative clause is a type of dependent clause that modifies part or all of the main clause. For example:

  • He’s the man who hit my car!
  • I like to eat foods that are natural.
  • She wants to invite people whom we all know.
  • The table, which was a present, looks great in my living room.

As you can see, all four relative clauses provide additional information about the noun in the main clause. For this reason, relative clauses are sometimes known as “adjective clauses.” You’ll also notice that relative clauses must begin with a relative pronoun.

In English, there are five (common) relative pronouns.

What are the 5 relative pronouns?

These are the five most common relative pronouns:

  • That – “That” modifies people and things.
    • The woman grabbed the pamphlet that was nearest to her.
    • The dog that bit me lives nearby.
  • Which – “Which” modifies things.
    • The book, which took five years to write, was rather dull.
    • The bird, which sings all day, wants to leave its cage.
  • Who – “Who” modifies people or animals (with names).
    • I like people who give to charity.
    • Diego is a chimpanzee who knows sign language.
  • Whom – “Whom” modifies people or animals (with names) that function as the object of a sentence.
    • Last night I saw a man whom I believe to be the city mayor.
    • She’s the woman with whom he had an affair.
  • Whose – “Whose” modifies people or animals (with names) by referring to something that they possess.
    • My roommate is the one whose mother passed away.
    • Lyle, whose fur is completely black, is one of the friendliest cats you’ll ever meet.

Compound Relative Pronouns

In addition to the five pronouns listed above, there are also a few compound relative pronouns. People sometimes refer to them as “indefinite relative pronouns.”

Compound relative pronouns apply to general groups of people or things, as well as people or things that are unknown. For example:

  • Whoever – “Whoever” modifies general groups or unknown people.
    • Whoever comes to the party will be welcomed as a friend.
  • Whomever – “Whomever” modifies general groups or unknown people that function as the object of a sentence.
    • They always mistreated whomever they encountered.
  • Whichever – “Whichever” modifies general groups or unknown things.
    • I will eat at whichever restaurant you prefer.
  • Whatever – “Whatever” modifies general or unknown things.
    • My parents will be happy with whatever career I choose.

Finally, where, when, and what can also function as relative pronouns in some situations. For example:

  • Can you show us the spot where you proposed?
  • We can cross that bridge when we come to it.
  • I don’t know what to do.

How to Use Relative Pronouns

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While the rules above provide a solid introduction to relative pronouns in English, they definitely don’t tell the whole story!

Some relative pronouns seem interchangeable (that/which, who/that), while some relative pronouns require specific punctuation. In any case, we will break down some of the more complicated rules below!

Restrictive Relative Clauses vs. Non-Restrictive Relative Clauses

These names probably sound intimidating, but they’re easy once you know what they mean!

In short, relative clauses can be divided into two types: restrictive and non-restrictive. These are sometimes referred to as defining (restrictive) and non-defining (non-restrictive) clauses.

Restrictive clauses provide information that is necessary to understand the noun and sentence.

Alternatively, a non-restrictive relative clause adds non-vital information about the noun. In other words, you can remove a non-restrictive relative clause and the sentence will still make sense.

However, if you try to remove a restrictive relative clause, the sentence won’t make sense. Let’s take a closer look at how to use relative pronouns in both restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses.

Restrictive Relative Clauses

In English, relative pronouns can function as a subject pronoun, an object pronoun, or a possessive pronoun. Let’s see how they each work in restrictive relative clauses:

Type Pronoun Example Sentence
Subject That The house that I grew up in was small.
Subject Who The man who took my purse had green eyes.
Object Whom She is the girl of whom we are speaking.
Object That The car that I want is not expensive.
Possessive Whose The person whose phone was stolen should contact the police.
Possessive Whosever Whosever keys these are should let me know.

Non-Restrictive Relative Clauses

Now, let’s see how relative pronouns function in non-restrictive relative clauses. Remember, non-restrictive clauses add nonessential information. While they operate much like restrictive clauses, non-restrictive clauses must be separated from the rest of the sentence with one or more commas.

Type Pronoun Example Sentence
Subject Which The house, which I grew up in, is small.
Subject Who The boy, who usually makes good grades, failed the test.
Object Whom The girl, whom no one likes, wants to be my friend.
Object Which The car, which I hope to buy someday, is expensive.
Possessive Whose The person, whose name I can’t remember, attends my school.
Possessive Whosever The jackets, whosever they may be, were taken to lost and found.

Common Grammar and Usage Problems

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As you can see, relative pronouns can get a little tricky. Even native English speakers argue over correct usage! So, let’s look at a few of the most common grammar issues with relative pronouns and how you can avoid them:

That vs. Which

Both “that” and “which” can refer to the same things. For example:

  • This is the movie that I want to watch.
  • I want to watch this movie, which stars Bruce Willis.

Can you see the difference? In most cases, we use “that” to begin a restrictive relative clause, while we use “which” to begin a non-restrictive relative clause. It’s as simple as that!

Who vs. That

“Who” and “that” can both refer to people. Some grammar purists argue that only “who” should refer to people, however, it is very common to use the words interchangeably. For example:

  • She’s the woman that wants to meet me.
  • She’s the woman who wants to meet me.

The first example sounds a bit more natural. While it’s not a “rule,” many people use “that” to refer to people in informal speech and writing. Additionally, “who” often refers to singular nouns, while “that” often refers to plural nouns. For example:

  • He’s the boy who broke his leg.
  • They are the ones that skipped class.

Using “Who” for Animals

Finally, there’s some confusion over whether you should ever use “who” to refer to animals. Generally speaking, “who” only refers to people, while “that” or “which” refer to things (including animals). However, as outlined above, you can make an exception to this rule when an animal has a name. For example:

  • My cat, Delilah, is the one who stole the sandwich off the counter.
  • This is the cow that doesn’t like people.

Conclusion

Fortunately, there are not a lot of relative pronouns to memorize. That said, each one serves a specific role. Once you learn the rules outlined above, you’re all set! You’ll be using relative pronouns during everyday conversations in no time!

If you really want to advance your English skills, our starter plan includes unlimited automatic feedback and access to our Magoosh English Speaking Slack Group. There you can get peer feedback from advanced students along with unlimited automatic feedback within the app.

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