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A relative pronoun introduces a subordinate clause that explains or describes a noun. This type of subordinate clause is called a relative clause. Relative pronouns are who, whom, whose, which, and that. Usually the relative pronoun immediately follows its noun antecedent. In the following examples, the noun is underlined and the relative clause is in brackets.
- This is the necklace [that my grandmother gave me].
- Where is the man [whom you saw]?
- A director [whose films were being honored] made an appearance at the film festival.
The relative pronouns who and whom refer to people. Whose, indicating possession, can refer to people, animals, or things. Which generally refers to things other than people, and that can refer to anything.
- Correct: The children whom you saw were going to the museum.
- Correct: The children that you saw were going to the museum.
- Incorrect: The children which you saw were going to the museum.
The relative pronouns that, which, and who/whom can be omitted from a relative clause, but only if they do not form the subject of the relative clause.
- Correct: The man [whom you met yesterday] is my business partner.
- Correct: The man [you met yesterday] is my business partner.
You is the subject of the clause, so whom can be omitted.
- Correct: The man [who introduced himself to you] is my business partner.
- Incorrect: The man [introduced himself to you] is my business partner.
Who is the subject of the clause, so it cannot be omitted.
- Correct: The man [whose card I gave you] is my business partner.
- Incorrect: The man [card I gave you] is my business partner.
Whose can never be omitted from a relative clause.
Closely related to relative pronouns are relative adverbs, which can also introduce relative clauses. Common relative adverbs are when, why, how, and where. Unlike relative pronouns, relative adverbs can never be the subject of a clause. Adverbs are modifiers, and modifiers cannot act as subjects.
- The lot where I park my car has no shade. (Where introduces the relative clause “I park my car.” The subject of the clause is I.)
- The day when we first met was rainy and cold.(When introduces the relative clause “we first met.” The subject of the clause is we. It would also be acceptable to omit when: “The day we first met…”)
Gray Area: Restrictive “That” versus Nonrestrictive “Which”
An old grammar rule says that the relative pronoun that can introduce only restrictive relative clauses and the relative pronoun which can introduce only nonrestrictive relative clauses. A restrictive clause introduces information essential to the sentence and is not set off by commas. A nonrestrictive clause introduces supplementary information and is always set off by commas. For example:
- The watch that belonged to my grandfather needs repair. (restrictive)
- The watch, which was made in Germany, used to chime on the hour. (nonrestrictive)
While this rule might be useful as a memory aid, it does not necessarily reflect current practice. In reality, there is nothing grammatically incorrect about using which to introduce a restrictive clause:
- The watch which belonged to my grandfather needs repair. (restrictive)
The choice between which or that for restrictive clauses is strictly a matter of style, and many writers and speakers would find no difference between the two. However, some teachers and editors still prefer to use which for nonrestrictive clauses only, so students should be aware of this rule.
One rule that is grammatically sound: that cannot introduce a nonrestrictive clause. In any case, who, whom, whoever, or whomever are appropriate choices when the clause refers to a person.
Common Pitfall: “Who” versus “Whom”
In spoken English and in some informal writing, whom is rarely used, but in formal writing, you must determine whether to use who (nominative) or whom (objective) when introducing a relative clause. To help you recognize whether the pronoun is being used as a subject or an object within the relative clause, try rephrasing the clause as a sentence and substituting a different pronoun for who/whom.
- I met the artist [who/whom painted this picture].
- Rephrased: The artist painted this picture. OR: She painted this picture.
- Correct: I met the artist [who painted this picture]. (In this relative clause, the artist/she is the subject of the verb painted; therefore, the nominative case is required.)
- He is the kind of person [who/whom I admire].
- Rephrased: I admire him.
- Correct: He is the kind of person whom I admire. (In this relative clause, him is the object of the verb admire; therefore, the objective case is required.)
Remember that the key question is how the pronoun functions with the clause. Do not be confused by other words that appear before the pronoun.
- Give the package to [whoever is working at the front desk].
Because the pronoun follows the preposition to, some students might reason that the pronoun is the object of the preposition, and therefore use whomever. But because whoever is the subject of the clause, it must be in nominative case. (Whoever is not the object of the preposition in the this case; the entire clause is the object of the preposition.) Compare this sentence:
- Give the package to [whomever you find at the front desk].
In this relative clause, whomever is the direct object of the verb find, so it must be in objective case. (Rephrased, it would be “you find him at the front desk.”)