What Are Relative Pronouns?

Relative Pronouns

A relative pronoun is a pronoun that heads an adjective clause. The relative pronouns are "that," "which," "who," "whom," and "whose."

relative pronoun definition and example

Here are some simple examples:
  • That
    • The dog that stole the pie is back.
    • (The relative pronoun is bold. The adjective clause is highlighted.)
  • Which
    • My new dog, which I bought last year, loves green beans.
  • Who
    • The person who bought his car found a 3-carat diamond under the seat.
  • Whom
    • Our lawyer, whom we employed for over a year, was related to the complainant.
  • Whose
    • The young girl whose cat scratched our sofa has offered to replace the cushions.

The Function of Relative Pronouns

The function of a relative pronoun is to head (or introduce) an adjective clause. An adjective clause follows a noun:

(1) To identify it.

For example:
  • The man who won the lottery is outside.
  • (The adjective clause (highlighted) identifies the man.)
(2) To tell us something interesting about it.

For example:
  • Inspector Smith, who won the lottery, is outside.
  • (The adjective clause (highlighted) tells us something interesting about Inspector Smith.)
relative pronoun comma or not

Click on Two Relative Pronouns

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More Examples of Relative Pronouns

In each of these examples, the relative pronoun is bold and the adjective clause is highlighted.
  • 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:

(Question 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 highlighted 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.
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 a 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 just 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, that 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.)

(Question 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.)

(Question 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.

(Question 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.)

(Question 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.
  • (You can't expand "who's" to "who is" or "who has," so "who's" is wrong. It should be "whose.")

(Question 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.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited and printed to create exercise worksheets.

See Also

Using whose with inanimate objects What is an adjective clause? What is the subjective case? What is the objective case? What is the possessive case? What are pronouns? The different types of pronouns Demonstrative pronouns Indefinite pronouns Interrogative pronouns Personal pronouns Possessive pronouns Reciprocal pronouns Reflexive pronouns Glossary of grammatical terms