David Recine

Introduction to Relativizers

Relativizers are special words in English that are used to give a reader more information about a noun. The most common English relativizers are who, whom, that, which, whose, where and when. Relativizers add information to nouns in two specific ways. Below, I’ll explain the two uses of this kind of word, with examples.


The Two Uses of Relativizers:

Use 1: Relativizers may add specific information that helps to identify a noun.


1) Roberta, who is a third year university student, is sitting at that table. (In this sentence, the relativizer “who” is used to give additional information that identifies the subject of the sentence.)

2) All security matters were handled by the director of the palace guard, in whom the king placed great trust. (Here, the relativizer “whom” is used to give extra information about the director of the palace guard, helping people understand his relationship with the king.)

3) The tree, which was very close to the house, was struck by lightning. (Here, the relativizer “which” is used to add extra descriptive information about the subject of the sentence, a tree.)

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4) Yesterday, when it was still raining, I stayed in my house. (“When” is used to add more information to “yesterday,” the time period the sentence takes place in.)

5) My biology teacher, whose husband is a doctor, knows a lot about human biology. (“Whose” adds information about my biology teacher.)

6) Quebec, where most of the world’s maple syrup comes from, is beautiful in the summer. (“Where” is used to add an extra fact about the Canadian province of Quebec.)

Use 2: Relativizers may also limit nouns into specific categories.


1) Roger is the student who is giving a presentation in this class today. (The relativizer “who” limits the subject “Roger” into the category of students giving a presentation in this class today. This is a very narrow category with just one person in it.)

2) That is one of the women with whom I spoke yesterday. (Here, the relativizer “whom” limits the noun “woman,” showing that the woman is part of a group of women I spoke with yesterday.)

3) Here is a hospital in which one of America’s presidents was born. (The relativizer “which” is used to limit the noun “hospital” to the category of hospital that a U.S. president was born in.)

4) Here is a hospital that one of America’s president’s was born in. (“That” is used to limit “hospital” to the category of houses where U.S. presidents were born. Notice that examples 3 and 4 have the same meaning.)

5) That’s the woman whose house I bought. (“Whose” limits “the woman” to the category of women that I purchased a house from.)

6) This is a place where live music often plays. (“Where” limits “a place” to the group of places that have live music playing frequently.”)

7) The Cambrian Age was a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth. (“When” is used to limit the Cambrian Age to a category of times when dinosaurs dominated our planet.)

This gives you a basic idea of how relativizers are used. You can used these rules to improve your TOEFL writing. This can also help you understand the relativizers in TOEFL reading passages better. In my next post on this subject, I’ll give you a closer look at four relativizers students often find challenging: that, which, who, and whom.



  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he’s helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master’s Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he’s presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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