Relative Pronouns | Definition, List & Examples
A relative pronoun is a pronoun that’s used to introduce a relative clause. The main English relative pronouns are which, that, who, and whom. These words can also function as other parts of speech—they aren’t exclusively used as relative pronouns.
A relative clause introduces further information about the preceding noun or noun phrase, either helping to identify what it refers to (in a restrictive clause) or just providing extra details (in a nonrestrictive clause).
The relative clause comes after a noun or noun phrase (called the antecedent) and gives some additional information about the thing or person in question. The relative pronoun represents the antecedent.
Which vs. that
That and which are both normally used when the antecedent is an animal or thing, not a person. Which one you use depends on whether the relative clause is restrictive or nonrestrictive.
A restrictive clause provides essential identifying information about the antecedent. In other words, if you removed a restrictive clause, the meaning of the sentence would change drastically, becoming much less specific. You should use that to introduce a restrictive clause.
A nonrestrictive clause, on the other hand, provides information that could be removed without affecting the basic meaning of the sentence. These clauses are separated by commas from the rest of the sentence, and they are introduced by which.
Who vs. whom
- Who functions as the subject of the clause (i.e., the person/people performing the action).
- Whom functions as the object of the clause (i.e., the person/people being acted upon).
Who vs. that
Who (along with whom) is used only to refer to people (and sometimes animals). It’s never used for things.
That is a trickier subject. It’s primarily used for things other than people, but it’s often used to refer to people too, especially when making a generalization (e.g., “parents that engage with their kids”) and sometimes also with specific people (e.g., “it was Steph that said it”). Note that which is never used in this way.
This usage is considered wrong by many style guides, although some authorities argue that it shouldn’t be, since it’s been common for a long time. We recommend maintaining a clear distinction in your writing, using who or whom for people and that or which for things.
- People that signed up to participate were asked to complete a preliminary survey.
- People who signed up to participate were asked to complete a preliminary survey.
Like other pronouns, a relative pronoun can cause ambiguity if it is not placed straight after its antecedent (the noun or noun phrase it refers back to). When the text preceding the relative clause contains multiple nouns, make sure the last one is the one you intended the relative clause to modify.
For example, below, we’re not sure whether the speaker’s husband or their father-in-law is called Joe, until the sentence is rephrased for clarity.
- The father of my husband, who is called Joe, has been really welcoming.
- My husband’s father, who is called Joe, has been really welcoming.
And below, we’re not sure what’s running through the neighborhood—the street or the dog? The sentence can be rephrased in different ways depending on the intended meaning.
- There’s a really loud dog at the other end of the street that runs through our neighborhood.
- At the end of the street that runs through our neighborhood, there’s a really loud dog.
- There’s a really loud dog that runs through our neighborhood. It lives at the end of the street.
Leaving out the relative pronoun
In many cases, the relative pronoun can be left out of the sentence without affecting its meaning. The relative pronoun can be left out if both of the following conditions apply:
- The relative clause it introduces is restrictive (i.e., not surrounded by commas).
- It functions as the object, not the subject, of the clause.
This means that whom can usually be omitted, and that often can; which and who generally can’t be left out.
|Examples: Optional relative pronouns
|Examples: Mandatory relative pronouns
|Please, it’s the least [that] I can do.
The second person [whom] I met at the office was Sandra.
It was the biggest cathedral [that] I had ever seen.
|There are many species of birds that migrate every year.
You’re not the first person who has pointed that out to me.
My wallpaper, which is blue, is starting to peel at the corners.
Omitting the relative pronoun (when possible) has the effect of making the sentence sound less formal. In most cases, it doesn’t cause any ambiguity, but it’s typically better to keep the pronoun in formal writing.
One occasion where you might omit the pronoun even in a formal context is when retaining it would lead you to repeat the same word twice in a row:
- The complications that that error caused us were countless.
- The complications that error caused us were countless.
Other relative pronouns
Some other words are used as relative pronouns in some contexts but function differently or are rarely used in this way.
What can be used as a relative pronoun, but it works slightly differently; it doesn’t follow on from a preceding noun phrase but introduces a clause on its own. This is called a free relative clause or fused relative clause:
- The thing what she has accomplished is extraordinary.
- What she has accomplished is extraordinary.
Whichever, whoever, whomever, whatever
Which, who, whom, and what can be combined with “-ever” to create the compound relative pronouns whichever, whoever, whomever, and whatever.
These pronouns are used to indicate that you don’t know the specific identity of the thing or person you’re referring to and are making a general statement. Like “what,” they are used in free relative clauses, meaning they don’t follow on from a noun phrase but stand on their own.
The possessive pronoun form of “who,” whose, can also be used as a relative pronoun to indicate ownership, but it’s rare and usually reads unnaturally. Its use as a relative determiner (i.e., modifying a noun that comes after it) is much more standard.
- The man whose it was asked me to give it back.
- The man whose hat it was asked me to give it back.
When and where
Some grammars classify when and where as relative pronouns when they’re used in certain contexts, but these words are usually regarded as relative adverbs instead, because the words they stand in for (i.e., “then” and “there”) are not nouns but adverbs.
Relative vs. interrogative pronouns
Most relative pronouns are also used as interrogative pronouns—words used to ask questions. Their roles in questions are similar to their roles in relative clauses: what and which are used to ask questions about things, who and whom about people, and whose about ownership.
Frequently asked questions
- What is a relative pronoun?
- Is “that” a relative pronoun?
Yes, that is normally classified as a relative pronoun when it’s used in a phrase like “the house that I live in” or “the train that departs at 4 p.m.”
Some modern grammars disagree, classing it as a subordinating conjunction instead in such cases, but traditional grammars usually call it a relative pronoun.
Sources in this article
We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.This Scribbr article Sources Show all sources (3)