Relative Pronouns | List, Definition & Examples

Nouns and Pronouns updated on  February 27, 2024 7 min read

Relative pronouns are pronouns that are used to introduce a relative clause. The primary English relative pronouns are “that,” “which,” “who,” and “whom.”

A relative clause (also known as an adjective clause) gives information about a noun or noun phrase. There are two types of relative clauses:

  • Restrictive clauses give essential information that helps identify the noun.
  • Nonrestrictive clauses provide nonessential details about the noun.
The relative clause follows the noun or noun phrase it modifies (called the antecedent).

Relative pronoun uses

Pronoun

Usage

Example

That
  • Refers to things
  • Used in restrictive clauses
The house that is closest to the river flooded.
Which
  • Refers to things
  • Used in nonrestrictive clauses
My house, which is near the river, almost flooded last year.
Who
  • Refers to people
  • Used as a subject pronoun
  • Used in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses
The woman who gave the toast is the bride’s sister.



Luna, who is the bride’s sister, gave the toast.
Whom
  • Refers to people
  • Used as a object pronoun
  • Used in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses
The woman whom I gave the ring to is the bride’s sister.



Luna, whom I gave the ring to, is the bride’s sister.

That vs which

“That” and “which” are both used to refer to things or animals. The choice of pronoun to use depends on whether the relative clause is restrictive or nonrestrictive.

That is used in restrictive clauses (those that give essential identifying information about their antecedents and are thus sometimes called “essential clauses”). If a restrictive clause is removed from a sentence, the meaning of the sentence changes or becomes unclear.

Restrictive clause examples
The activity that I enjoy most is swimming.
Only the files that are in this box can be destroyed.

Nonrestrictive clauses, on the other hand, provide nonessential information that could be omitted without affecting the general meaning of the sentence. Nonrestrictive clauses (also called “nonessential clauses”) are introduced by which and are separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.

Nonrestrictive clause examples
Swimming, which is my favorite activity, is great exercise.
The files from the Cooper project, which are all in this box, can be destroyed.

Note
In British English, either “which” or “that” can be used for restrictive clauses.

These are the crisps that I love the most.
These are the crisps which I love the most.

In American English, “which” is only used for nonrestrictive clauses.

These are the chips that I love the most.
These are the chips which I love the most.

Who vs whom

In everyday speech, people generally use “who” in all contexts. However, in academic and formal writing, it is important to distinguish between “who” and “whom.”

  • Who is used as the subject of a clause (i.e., the one performing the action).
  • Whom is used as the object of a clause (i.e., the one being acted upon).

Relative clauses with “who” and “whom” examples
He’s the type of person who always offers to help.
The king, whom the explorer had met many times, offered to fund the expedition.
The students whom the teacher gave an “A” to were very happy.

Tip
One way to decide whether “who” or “whom” should be used is to rephrase the clause using personal pronouns.

“He,” “she,” and “they” indicate that “who” is the right choice. “Him,” “her,” and “them” indicate that “whom” is correct.

For example, “whom the teacher gave an ‘A’ to” would be rephrased as “the teacher gave an ‘A’ to them,” confirming that “whom” is correct.

Who vs that

Who (and whom) is used to refer to people (and occasionally animals) but never things.

That is typically used to refer only to things or animals. However, it is sometimes used to refer to people in a general way (e.g., “people that love sports”). Less frequently, it is even used to refer to specific people (e.g., “It was you that took the last cupcake”). Which is never used to refer to people.


While “that” is generally accepted in these types of constructions in daily conversation, we recommend avoiding using “that” to refer to people in academic writing.

Who vs that examples
People that exercised more than 2 hours per day were excluded from the study.
People who exercised more than 2 hours per day were excluded from the study.

Ambiguous antecedents

Like all pronouns, relative pronouns can sometimes be interpreted as having more than one antecedent (the noun or noun phrase the pronoun refers to). To avoid this, the noun that the relative clause modifies should be placed directly before the relative clause. Additionally, it is typically better to avoid multiple nouns in the part of the sentence before the relative clause.

For example, in the first sentence below, it is unclear whether the groom or his brother is named Desmond.

Ambiguous antecedent examples
The brother of the groom, who is named Desmond, will be the best man.
The groom’s brother, who is named Desmond, will be the best man.

In the first example below, it is not clear whether the necklace or the jewelry box was given by the speaker’s grandmother.

Ambiguous antecedent examples
There is a necklace in the jewelry box that was given to me by my grandmother.
The necklace that was given to me by my grandmother is in the jewelry box.

Leaving out the relative pronoun

Often, the relative pronoun can be left out of a relative clause without affecting the sentence’s meaning. This can occur under the following conditions:

  • The relative clause is restrictive (i.e., not set off by commas).
  • The relative pronoun is the object, not the subject, of the clause.

Thus, “whom” and “that” can usually be omitted; “which” and “who” typically cannot be.

Optional relative pronoun examples

Mandatory relative pronoun examples

I want the cupcake [that] Leila brought.

The rooms that have nice views are very expensive.

This is the person [whom] I want to hire.

He is the one who told me the business is closing.

The papers [that] I need are on the table.

I ordered the salmon, which came with a side of brown rice.

Sentences that have the relative pronoun omitted sound less formal, so it is typically preferable to maintain the pronoun in formal writing.

One exception to this guideline is when keeping the pronoun leads to using “that” twice in a row:

Correct relative pronoun use example
The consequences that that drought had for crop yields were catastrophic.
The implications that drought had for crop yields were catastrophic.

Note
If a relative pronoun that functions as the object of a preposition is omitted, the preposition is moved to the end of the relative clause. For example, “the person to whom I gave the information” becomes “the person I gave the information to.”

You may have been advised not to end a sentence with a preposition, but this is outdated advice. Even in formal writing, there is no problem with ending a sentence with a preposition.

Other relative pronouns

There are a few other words that are occasionally used as relative pronouns but also have other, more common functions.

What

“What” functions slightly differently from other relative pronouns. It does not follow a noun phrase but instead introduces a clause on its own. This is referred to as a free relative clause or fused relative clause.

“What” as a relative pronoun examples
The show what we have just seen was outstanding.
What we have just seen was outstanding.

Whichever, whatever, whoever, whomever

“Which,” “what,” “who,” and “whom” can be combined with “-ever” to create compound relative pronouns: “whichever,” “whatever,” “whoever,” and “whomever.”

These pronouns are used when the speaker is making a general statement and doesn’t know the specific identity of the thing or person they’re referring to. Like “what,” they are used in free relative clauses and stand on their own without following a noun phrase.

Compound relative pronoun examples
You can take whichever you’d like.
Whoever left their trash on the table needs to throw it away.

Whose

Whose,” the possessive pronoun form of “who,” can be used as a relative pronoun to show ownership. However, this use is rare and usually seems unnatural. It is more commonly used as a relative determiner that modifies a following noun.

“Whose” as a relative pronoun and determiner examples
The people whose it was were so happy to have it returned.
The people whose dog it was were so happy to have it returned.

Note
Some language textbooks classify “when” and “where” as relative pronouns in certain contexts, but these words more properly fit in the category of relative adverbs. The words they stand in for (i.e., “then” and “there”) are adverbs rather than nouns.

Relative pronouns vs interrogative pronouns

Most relative pronouns can also be used as interrogative pronouns, which are used in questions. These words have similar functions in questions and in relative clauses: “who” and “whom” are used to refer to people, “what” and “which” to things, and “whose” to ownership.

Interrogative pronoun examples
What does this sentence say?
Which shirt is your favorite?
Whose is this book?
Whom did Maria call?

Note
“That” is never used as an interrogative pronoun, but it can be used as a conjunction or demonstrative pronoun.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


Frequently asked questions about relative pronouns

Is “that” a relative pronoun?

Yes, “that” is one of the four most common relative pronouns in English (“that,” “which,” “who,” and “whom”).

Relative pronouns are used to introduce relative clauses, which give more information about a noun or noun phrase (e.g., “the shirt that Dylan is wearing” or “the book that is on the table”).

In other contexts, “that” is also used as an adverb, conjunction, or determiner.

What is a relative adverb?

A relative adverb is a type of adverb that introduces a dependent clause (i.e., a group of words with a subject and a verb that cannot stand on its own as a sentence).

There are three relative adverbs in English:

  • where (e.g., “The restaurant where we ate last Friday was really good”)
  • when (e.g., “Do you remember that time when Sonia sang karaoke?”)
  • why (e.g., “The reason why I was late was traffic”)

What is the difference between “that” and “which”?

“That” and “which” are two of the four most common relative pronouns in English (along with “who” and “whom”).

That is used to introduce restrictive relative clauses—those that give essential information about the noun or noun phrase they modify (e.g., “Book the flight that leaves at 7 a.m.”). Restrictive clauses are not set off by commas.

Which is used to introduce nonrestrictive relative clauses—those that give nonessential details about the noun or noun phrase they modify (e.g., “My assistant booked the earliest flight, which leaves at 7 a.m.”). Nonrestrictive clauses are set off by commas.

In British English, “which” can also be used (without commas) in restrictive clauses. However, in American English, “which” is only used in nonrestrictive clauses.





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Kayla Anderson Hewitt

Kayla has a master's degree in teaching English as a second language. She has taught university-level ESL and first-year composition courses. She also has 15 years of experience as an editor.

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