Relative Pronouns

Relative Pronouns

A relative pronoun introduces an adjective clause. (An adjective clause follows a noun to identify it or tell us something interesting about it.)

Here is a list of the relative pronouns:
  • That
  • Which
  • Who
  • Whom
  • Whose

Easy Examples of Relative Pronouns

In each of these examples, the relative pronoun is underlined and the adjective clause is in bold.
  • The girl who stole your phone is outside.
  • (The relative pronoun who heads an adjective clause that identifies the girl.)
  • I rode the bike that Jack gave me back home.
  • (The relative pronoun that heads an adjective clause that identifies the bike.)
  • Mrs Miggins, who owns a pie shop, is outside.
  • (The relative pronoun who heads an adjective clause that tells us something interesting about Mrs Miggins.)
  • I rode my bike, which now had two flat tyres, back home.
  • (The relative pronoun which heads an adjective clause that tells us something interesting about my bike.)

Real-Life Examples of Relative Pronouns

The following relative pronouns head adjective clauses that identify their nouns. (Note that there are no commas.)
  • Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. (President of South Africa Nelson Mandela)
  • An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support. (Canadian politician John Buchan)
  • Happy is the son whose faith in his mother remains unchallenged. (American novelist Louisa May Alcott)
  • Life is something that everyone should try at least once.
  • (Adjective clauses can also identify pronouns.)
The following relative pronouns head adjective clauses that give unnecessary but interesting information about their nouns. (Note that there are commas.)
  • The sense of flowing, which is so crucial to song, is also crucial to poetry. (US Poet Edward Hirsch)
  • The United Nations, whose membership comprises almost all the states in the world, is founded on the principle of the equal worth of every human being. (UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan)
  • The man Dickens, whom the world at large thought it knew, stood for all the Victorian virtues (probity, kindness, hard work, sympathy for the down-trodden, the sanctity of domestic life) even as his novels exposed the violence, hypocrisy, greed and cruelty of the Victorian age. (Author Robert Gottlieb)

Why Should I Care about Relative Pronouns?

Here are the six most frequently asked questions related to relative pronouns:

(1) Do you put a comma before which?

The answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. This applies to all relative pronouns, not just which. (Actually, it doesn't apply to that, but we'll cover that point later.) Look at these two examples using who:
  • The man who won last week’s lottery gave all his money to a donkey sanctuary.
  • My neighbour, who won last week’s lottery, gave all his money to a donkey sanctuary.
These two sentences are nearly identical, but one has commas and one doesn’t. They are both correct.

It all depends whether the adjective clause (the bold text) specifies its noun. If it does (like in the first example, where it specifies the man), then don’t use commas. If it doesn’t (like in the second example, where it’s just additional information about my neighbour), then use commas. Now look at this example:
  • My neighbour who won last week’s lottery gave all his money to a donkey sanctuary.
This is also correct. This time the adjective clause is specifying my neighbour. We’re now talking about my lottery-winning neighbour as opposed to any neighbours who didn’t win the lottery. So, you have to think carefully about whether an adjective clause specifies or doesn’t.

Here’s a good tip: Treat the commas like brackets. If you’d happily put brackets around the adjective clause, then use commas because the clause will just be additional information.

Here’s another tip: If you'd happily delete the clause, then it must be just additional information, meaning you should offset it with commas.

So, the question was about using a comma before which, but the answer used examples with who. There is a good reason for that. Lots of Americans, and increasingly Brits, insist on using that instead of which without a comma (i.e., when which heads an adjective clause that specifies its noun). Look at these examples:
  • The dog which bit the postman has returned.
  • The dog that bit the postman has returned.
Both of these are correct, but lots of people find the top one a little awkward. (When a clause specifies its noun, it is called a restrictive clause. When it’s just additional information, it’s called non-restrictive clause.)

So, which can head a restrictive adjective clause (without commas) or a non-restrictive one (with commas), but, if you’re writing to Americans, use that for the former.
  • My dog gives a trust which is total.
  • My dog gives a trust that is total.
  • (These are both restrictive adjective clauses.)
  • My dog gives total trust, which is very endearing.
  • (This is a non-restrictive adjective clause.)
You can’t use that to head a non-restrictive adjective clause. So, if the question had been “Do you put a comma before that?” It would have been a much quicker answer. No.
  • How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese? (Charles De Gaulle)
  • (This translation is fine, but be aware that, for many people (especially Americans), that scans better than which without a comma.)
Let's get back to the main point. Remember, if an adjective clause specifies, there are no commas. If it doesn't, there are. Sometimes, you have to think really clearly about this:
  • War should only be declared by the authority of the people, whose toils and treasures are to support its burdens, instead of the government which is to reap its fruits. (4th US President James Madison)
  • (In this example, the first adjective clause is non-restrictive (i.e., it's just additional information about the people that could be deleted), but the second is restrictive (i.e., it specifies the government).)
The sentence above would also be fine with all the commas removed or with one inserted before which. Whether to use a comma or not before a word like which is not an aesthetics thing or a give-your-reader-a-chance-to-breath thing. It's not a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants thing. It's an it-depends-on-the-precise-intended-meaning thing.)

(2) Can you use whose for inanimate things?

Yes. Who is used for people. Which is used for things. Whose is used for people and things.
  • Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. (Author Erma Bombeck)
  • An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself. (French philosopher Albert Camus)
  • (In each example, whose is used with a person.)
  • An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come. (French poet Victor Hugo)
  • I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul. (from Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
  • (In each example, whose is used with a thing.)

(3) When do you use whom?

Here’s the rule: Use who when it’s the subject of verb, otherwise use whom.
  • Never lend your car to anyone who calls you mum.
  • (Who is the subject of the verb calls.)
  • Never lend your car to anyone whom you have given birth to. (Author Erma Bombeck)
  • (Whom is not the subject of a verb.)
  • There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done”, and those to whom God says, “All right, then, have it your way.” (CS Lewis)
  • (Who is the subject of the verb say. God is the subject of the verb says. Whom isn’t the subject of anything; therefore, whom is correct.)
  • I'm just someone who likes cooking and for whom sharing food is a form of expression. (Maya Angelou)
  • (Who is the subject of the verb likes. Sharing food is the subject of the verb is. Whom isn’t the subject of anything; therefore, whom is correct.)
This subject is covered more in the entry for the objective case.

(4) Can you use that for people?

That, like whose, can be used for people or things.
  • The dog that bit the postman.
  • (Here, that is used with a thing (dog).)
  • The postman that bit the dog.
  • (Here, that is used with a person (postman).)
Try to use who instead of that with people (especially in formal writing) because a fair proportion of your readers might find that with people a little uncouth.
  • The postman who bit the dog.
  • (This is far more acceptable…well, grammatically at least.)

(5) What's the difference between whose and who's?

Who's is a contraction. It is short for who is or who has. If you can't expand your who's to one of those, then you should be using whose.
  • A weed is a plant who's virtues have never been discovered. [wrong]
  • (You can't expand who's to who is or who has, so who's is wrong. It should be whose.)

(6) Should you avoid ending a sentence in a preposition?

Here's the quick answer: No.

Here's the longer answer:

When whom or which is the object of a preposition, you can start the adjective clause with the preposition.
  • We have to put up with most from those on whom we most depend. (Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracian)
  • (The preposition is on.)
  • I operated on the assumption that there was an absolute scale of values against which art could be measured. I didn't trust my own subjective responses. (Playwright Tom Stoppard)
  • (The preposition is against.)
Starting an adjective clause with a preposition is done to avoid ending the sentence with a preposition, which is still considered by many to be a grammar crime. Let's be clear on this. It's okay to end a sentence in a preposition, but some of your readers might think it's wrong or too informal. So, in formal writing, try to avoid ending a sentence in a preposition. Don't think of it as a rule. Think of it as a word game. However, if avoiding a sentence-ending preposition makes your sentence sound stilted, then either reword your sentence or stop playing and leave your preposition at the end.

Key Points

  • If your adjective clause (i.e., the clause headed by a word like which, who or whose) isn't needed to specify (i.e., you'd happily delete it or put it in brackets), then offset it with commas.
  • Only use who when it's the subject of a verb; otherwise, use whom.
  • You can use whose with inanimate things.
  • You can use that with people (but it's pretty informal).
  • If you can't expand your who's to who is or who has, you should be using whose.
  • You can end a sentence with a preposition if you want…just don't. It's a fun game. Yay!
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