Relative pronouns in English

  • Relative pronouns list
  • who
  • whom
  • which
  • that

Relative pronouns are used in relative clauses. In English, two types of relative clauses are distinguished:
defining (or restrictive) relative clauses and non-defining (or non-restrictive) relative clauses.

Defining relative clauses vs. non-defining relative clauses

Defining relative clauses

a) A defining relative clause follows its antecedent, i.e. the noun to which relates and describes it, in such a way as to distinguish it from other noun:
My friend who was imprisoned last week escaped from gaol.
Who was imprisoned last week is a defining relative clause that defines friend.
If a defining relative clause were omitted, it would not be clear to what friend one was referring.
b) Defining relative clauses are pronounced without any break intonation and that in written English there are no commas separating them.
c) Defining relative clauses are used both in spoken and in written English. It is estimated that they constitute 90% or relative clauses used in spoken English.

Non-defining relative clauses

a. A non-defining relative clause follows its antecedent but it does not define the noun to which it relates. It only give some additional information about the noun:
Tom, who is fifteen years old, is a good pupil.
Who is fifteen years old is a non-defining relative clause that provides an additional piece of information about Tom.
b) Non-defining relative clauses are pronounced with a break in intonation and are separated by commas in written English.
c) Non-defining relative clauses are very infrequently used in spoken language, being more typical of written English. In spoken language, it is more common to use two sentences instead:
Tom is a good pupil. You know, he is fifteen years old.

The difference in meaning

The difference in meaning is observed between the following:
a) Mr Brown has a sister who got divorced two weeks ago.
b) Mr Brown has a sister, who got divorced two weeks ago.
a. is a defining relative clause. It denotes that 'Mr. Brown has more than one sister -nd that one of them got divorced two weeks ago'.
b. is a non-defining relative clause. It means that 'Mr. Brown has only one sister and she got divorced two weeks ago'.

Defining relative clauses

Antecedents

Defining relative clauses distinguish two types of antecedents: personal and non-personel.
I met the/a friend who studied English with me years ago (the choice of the article depends on the meaning).
The book (that) I bought yesterday is very funny. (the brackets indicate that the pronoun is optional).

Case

In defining relative clauses relative pronouns are used in different cases:
Personal antecedents:
Subjective: who, that
Objective: whom, who, that
Objective with a preposition: prep. whom / whom ... prep. / who ... prep. / that ... prep.
Genitive: whose
Non-personal antecedents:
Subjective: which, that
Objective: which, that
Objective with a preposition: prep. which / which ... prep. / that ... prep.
Genitive: whose, of which

Defining relative clauses with persoanl antecedents

a. Subjective
In the subjective case, 'who' usually occurs, especially when the antecedent is definite or more particularized:
I met the boy who used to be my colleague.
b. Objective
As 'whom' is considered very formal, 'who' or even more usual 'that' are used in the spoken English in the objective case. The pronouns is often omitted.
The man whom/who/that/- I met was a soldier.
c. Objective with a preposition
In formal English the preposition occurs before the relative pronoun 'whom':
This is the man to whom I showed my collection of CDs.
In informal English the preposition occurs at the end of the clause and the relative pronoun remains 'whom' or is changed to 'who', 'that', or is deleted altogheter:
This is the man whom/who/that/- I showed my collection of CDs to.
d. Genitive
In the genitive case, there is only one possibility of use, namely 'whose':
The woman whose handbag was stolen yesterday is still very angry.

Defining relative clauses with non-personal antecedents

Subjective

In the subjective case which sounds more formal; therefore 'that' is usually used in spoken language:
I think this is your wallet which/that was found by my brother.

Objective with a preposition

In formal English 'which' is used, whereas in spoken language 'that' or nothing occurs in the objective case:
This is the table which/that/- I sold recently.

Objective with a preposition

In formal English, the preposition is placed before the relative pronoun:
Is that the address to which you wrote?
In spoken English, however, it is more common to place the preposition at the end of the sentence and to use 'which', 'that', or nothing:
Is that the address which/that you wrote to?

Genitive

In the genitive either 'whose' or 'of which' are used:
Nobody was willing to buy a car whose engine was out of order.
Nobody was willing to buy a car the engine of which was out of order.
It is more usual to avoid the relative pronoun and to use the preposition with instead:
Nobody was willing to buy a car with the engine out of order.

Non-defining relative clauses

Antecedents

Like defining relative clauses, non-defining relative clauses distinguish two types of antecedents: personal and non-personal:
Tom, who is a friend of mine, gave me fifteen yellow roses.
The shop, which is round the corner, always sells stale bread.

Case

In non-defining relative clauses, relative pronouns are used in different cases: Personal antecedents:
Subjective: who
Objective: whom, who
Objective with a preposition: prep, whom, whom ... prep.
Genitive: whose
Non-personal antecedents:
Subjective: which
Objective: which
Objective with a preposition: prep, which, which ... prep.
Genitive: whose, of which
The relative pronouns used in non-defining relative clauses are limited to wh- pronouns.

Non-defining relative clauses with personal antecedents

Subjective

In the subjective case only 'who' is used:
Tom, who is very pessimistic, is certain that he will never get a driving licence

Objective

In the objective case usually whom occurs, although 'who' is occasionally used in informal English:
Tom, whom/who I like, wants to me you again.

Objective with a preposition

The preposition is usually put before the relative pronoun 'whom', although in spoken English it is possible to use 'who' with the preposition moved to the end of the clause:
My wife, with whom I had a long row, said she would never come back.
My wife, who I had a long row with, said she would never come back.

Genitive

In the genitive, only 'whose' is possible:
Tom, whose mother is a pop star, goes to pub every evening.

Non-defining relative clauses with non-personel antecedents

Subjective and objective

Both in the subjective and in the objective cases 'which' is used:
His old cottage, which is situated in the mountains, is worth nothing.
My dog, which is only ten months old, is my best friend.

Objective with a preposition

The preposition is usually put before the relative pronoun 'which', although in informal English it is possible to use 'which' with the preposition moved to end of the clause:
The car, for which I didn't pay much, is very good.
The car, which I didn't pay much for, is very good.

Genitive

In the genitive case either 'whose' (for animals and things) or 'of which' (for things) are used:
My little monkey, whose temper is well-known, often turns everything over at home.
My watch, whose almost all parts were changed, is again out of order.
My watch, of which almost all parts were changed, is again out of order.
Such constructions are infrequently used and it would be more usual to say:
My little monkey has a well-known temper and it often turns everything at home.
Almost all parts were changed in my watch and it is again out of order.

That instead of who, whom, which

In defining relative clauses that is preferred in the following cases: 1. When the non-persoanal antecedent consists of such pronouns as:
all, any, some, no, none, much, few, little, only (or their compounds are possible):
There is very little that remains to be done.
2. When the antecedent is modified by a superlative:
He is the tallest person that has ever come to my place.
3. When the non-personal antecedent occurs after to be:
That is the shop that used to be the best one in the district.

Of which, of whom, of whose

1. It is possible to say either:
I can sell you two records, of which both are very good.
or
I can sell you two records, both of which are very good.

More than one relative clause in a sentence

It is possible to have more than one relative clause in a sentence:
She is the only person I know who can speak French.
I know is a defining relative clause that restricts the meaning of person, whereas who can speak French is another defining relative clause that restricts the meaning of the the only person I know.

Connective relative clauses

This term applies to non-defining relative clauses that function as co-ordinate clauses. Only who and which are used as connective relative pronouns. Instead of them it is possible to use co-ordinators:
He started to shout, which annoyed us.
(where the whole of the main sentence is an antecedent).
or
He started to shout and this annoyed us.
I explained everything to my husband, who was against that idea.
or
I explained everything to my husband and he was against that idea.

Collective nouns as antecedents

When collective nouns are used as antecedents, they are considered either as denoting an entity or as denoting a number of individuals. If for example government is mentioned as a whole, it is treated as a thing and is followed by which. If government is mentioned as a group of people it is treated as a personal noun nad it is followed by who
The Government, which has been elected, wants to introduce a number of new reforms.
The Government, who gathered to listen to the Ministers, were all delighted with it.

Relative clauses with antecedents referring to time, place, manner

Instead of using relative adverbs and saying:
the time when
the place where
the manner how
it is possible to use defining relative clauses:
I will always remember the day (that) I passed my final exams.
I will never forget the place (that) we first met.
In some cases where cannot be replaced by that:
I'd like to live in the country where it never rains.
Can you tell me the way that is the best for addressing senior staff members?

The relative what

What is a relative pronoun that replaces the thing/s which or that which. It never relates back to an antecedent and it introduces a noun clause:
He bought the things which he needed.
He bought what he needed.
where the clause what he needed is a noun clause, object of the verb 'bought'. In such sentences as:
He didn't know what had happened.
What does not function as a relative pronoun.

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