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Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns are used to link two sentences that have the same noun or pronoun in them. Relative pronouns form the beginning of a relative clause. In English there are five basic relative pronoun forms:

  • that = used when referring to either an animate or inanimate noun
  • who = used when referring to an animate noun
  • which = used when referring to an inanimate noun
  • whose = used as a possessive
  • elliptical relative pronoun = occurs when the relative pronoun is omitted

The noun in the introductory clause is called the antecedent. A relative pronoun replaces the noun in the second clause—the relative clause.

Let’s look at how relative pronouns connect two sentences. If the same noun or pronoun is found in both sentences, the second one can be omitted and replaced by a relative pronoun. Then the two sentences are stated as one. Notice how the animate and inanimate nouns change to relative pronouns.

  • Two Sentences: He likes the girlThe girl comes from Alaska.
  • Relative Clause: He likes the girl who comes from AlaskaOR He likes the girl that comes from Alaska.
  • Two Sentences: I bought the carThe car needs repairs.
  • Relative Clause: I bought the car that needs repairsOR I bought the car which needs repairs.

Nouns can be used as subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, objects of prepositions, and possessives; so, too, can relative pronouns that replace them.

There are specific uses for thatwho, and which; however, in casual speech the relative pronoun that can be substituted for who or which except when the relative pronoun shows possession. Look at these examples with inanimate nouns:

Use in a SentencePairs of SentencesRelative Clauses Formed
subjectI found the money. The money was lost.I found the money that was lost.
I found the money which was lost.
direct objectI found the money. Bree lost the money.I found the money that Bree lost.
I found the money which Bree lost.
indirect objectN/AN/A
prepositionI found the money. They spoke about the money.I found the money that they spoke about.
I found the money about which they spoke.
possessiveI found the money. The color of the money is green.I found the money the color of which is green.

It is possible to substitute whose for a prepositional phrase starting with of with inanimate objects: I found the money whose color is green.

Now look at similar examples with animate nouns:

Use in a SentencePairs of SentencesRelative Clauses Formed
subjectI found the boy. The boy was lost.I found the boy that was lost.
I found the boy who was lost.
direct objectI found the boy. Kim met the boy.I found the boy that Kim met.
I found the boy whom Kim met.
indirect objectI found the boy. They gave the boy a gift.I found the boy that they gave a gift to.
I found the boy to whom they gave a gift.
prepositionI found the boy. They spoke about the boy.I found the boy that they spoke about.
I found the boy about whom they spoke.
possessiveI found the boy. The boy’s father is a soldier.I found the boy whose father is a soldier.

Careful! If whom or which is part of a prepositional phrase, the preposition can stand in front of whom or which, or it can stand at the end of the relative clause:

  • I like the man for whom I work.
  • I like the man whom I work for.
  • These are the books about which she spoke.
  • These are the books which she spoke about.

When the relative pronoun is that, the preposition always stands at the end of the relative clause:

  • I like the man that I work for.
  • These are the books that she spoke about.

When an indirect object noun is changed to a relative pronoun, the preposition to or for should be added to give the meaning of the original sentence. Examples:

  • Do you know the man? I gave the man ten dollars.
  • Do you know the man to whom I gave ten dollars?
  • Andre saw the girl. I bought the girl some flowers.
  • Andre saw the girl that I bought some flowers for.

If the relative pronoun is used as a direct object or object of a preposition, it can be omitted. It is then called elliptical. If a preposition is involved, it must stand at the end of the relative clause.

UsageRelative Pronoun UsedElliptical Relative Pronoun
direct objectHe’s the man that I met in Canada.He’s the man I met in Canada.
prepositionWhere’s the car in which she was sitting?Where’s the car she was sitting in?

Note: You should be aware that in casual speech many English speakers regularly substitute who for whom.

There are two types of relative clausesrestrictive clauses and nonrestrictive clauses. Restrictive relative clauses contain information that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. If that information is omitted, the sentence cannot be understood as intended. The restrictive relative clause identifies the person or thing talked about in the other clause. Here are two examples:

  • The woman who stole the ring was soon arrested. (who stole the ring is essential information)
  • What’s the make of the car that you bought? (that you bought is essential information)

Nonrestrictive relative clauses merely give additional information but do not define the person or thing talked about in the other clause. The relative pronoun that should not be used in nonrestrictive relative clauses. However, in casual speech there is often substitution between that and the relative pronouns who and which. Here are two examples of nonrestrictive clauses:

  • The mayor, who is out of town right now, will give a speech on Friday. (who is out of town right now is additional but nonessential information)
  • The play, which lasted over three hours, was given rave reviews. (which lasted over three hours is additional but nonessential information)

Commas are used to separate a nonrestrictive relative clause from the other clause in the sentence.

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