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What Are Relative Pronouns?

Relative pronouns are words that introduce a dependent or relative clause and connect it with an independent clause. Clauses that start with a relative pronoun answer questions like What kind? How many? or Which one? That, which, what, who, and whom are all relative pronouns.

Relative clauses are also called adjective clauses. This is because they provide additional information about the subject of the independent clause. Similar to adjectives, these clauses describe the subject in one way or another. Like conjunctions, relative pronouns join clauses. Depending on the type of noun being described, you’ll use different kinds of relative pronouns. 

Who refers to a person as the subject of the verb.

Whom refers to a person as the object of the verb.

Which refers to a thing or an animal.

What refers to an inanimate object.

That refers to a person, thing, or animal.

The man who rang the doorbell left flowers for you.

I’m not sure whom this book belongs to.

Is that what you were talking about yesterday?

They finally went to the restaurant that had such amazing reviews.

That coffee, which I find a bit too strong for my liking, is extremely popular.

Possessive Relative Pronouns

Some people are surprised to learn that who and which can take the possessive form whose. Some argue that of which is a better grammatical construction when you’re talking about things instead of people. However, this tends to disrupt the flow of a sentence and sound unnecessarily awkward. Whose has been widely (and correctly) used for nonhumans for hundreds of years. 

He apologized to the girl whose glasses got broken.

The house whose owner is out of town has an interesting landscape design. 

The house, the owner of which is out of town, has an interesting landscape. (This construction is grammatically correct, but the wording is cumbersome.)

Compound Relative Pronouns

The term compound relative pronouns may sound complicated, but it’s not too difficult to understand. To put it simply, compound relative pronouns apply to a number of people or things; they’re considered universal. Whoever, whomever, whatever, and whichever are all compound relative pronouns.

Whomever you choose will be alright with me.

Whichever flight you take, you’ll end up at the same place.

He will be wonderful at whatever he decides to do in life.

Tell whoever calls that I’m not available today or tomorrow.

That Vs. Which

That and which are two relative pronouns that are often confused.

The Rule: Which introduces a nonrestrictive clause, while that introduces a restrictive clause.

A restrictive clause is a necessary part of the sentence it belongs to. If a restrictive clause were taken out of the sentence, the sentence’s meaning would not be the same. Meanwhile, nonrestrictive clauses are the opposite and do not affect the meaning of the sentence. 

The flight that has thirty-six rows of seats is going to Spain.

If we took the clause “that has thirty-six rows of seats” out of the sentence, the sentence’s meaning would change. We wouldn’t know which flight was going to Spain, and the intention of the sentence was to specify which flight was traveling there. The relative pronoun that goes with this type of clause.

The flight, which has thirty-six rows of seats, is going to Spain.

Here, “which has thirty-six rows of seats” is a parenthetical remark. It can be removed without altering the sentence’s meaning. Nonrestrictive clauses, also called nonessential clauses, are set off with commas, as you can see in the example above. 

Who Vs. That

There is some disagreement between various style guides regarding whether that is an acceptable relative pronoun when talking about people. Therefore, the following example may sound incorrect to some people.

The teacher that gives pop quizzes is always the students’ least favorite.

Grammatically speaking, this sentence is perfectly fine. However, your readers could disagree. Using who is generally safer than using that.

The teacher who gives pop quizzes is always the students’ least favorite. 

Keep Pronouns and Antecedents Close

The noun that a pronoun refers to is called the antecedent. To make your writing clearer, you should place the antecedent directly before the relative pronoun that refers to it.

The park down the street, which is beautiful, is one of my favorite places to spend time. 

This sentence results in unnecessary ambiguity. Is it the park of the street that is pristine? 

The beautiful park down the street is one of my favorite places to spend time. 

And that is the relative pronoun! Not as complex as it sounds, right? Now take this little quiz to test yourself!

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By Jessica Allen

Jessica is a full-time freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish.

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