Relative Pronouns

Understanding Relative Pronouns

When we mention someone or something in a sentence, we often go on to give further information about them.

One way to do this is to use a relative clause. This is where a relative pronoun comes into play.

The Relative Pronouns (“who”, “whom”, “which”, and “that”) are used to introduce or link dependent clauses. They relate group of words to nounsOpens in new window or other pronounsOpens in new window that its relative clauseOpens in new window modifies.

A relative pronoun does two jobs: it functions as subjectOpens in new window or objectOpens in new window of a verbOpens in new window in the relative clause, and it joins sentences together.

In the English language, there are basically two series of relative pronouns, as the chart below shows:

Series of Relative PronounsRelative WordsFunction
Gender selectionwhoused for people
whichused for every other things
Case distinctionwho/whom/whoseused for people
thatused in preference to who/whom/ or which but never used after whose. it is applied to both persons and things.

Correct Uses of Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns must refer to someone or something already mentioned in the sentence. The following are the principles and guidelines for correct uses of relative pronouns:

1.   Who, Which, or That

The relative pronouns who, which, and that are used to introduce or link relative clauses. They help to give further information between a noun or pronoun and the remainder of the sentence.

The principle is to use either who or that when you are referring to people.

Who (or whom) tends to be personal; it is appropriate when referring to an individual or group of individuals.

However, that is impersonal; and it is preferred to which when it is the subjectOpens in new window and especially where the antecedentOpens in new window is a word like: all, something, anything, nothing, little, much only, few, none.

Keep in mind that even with these guidelines, it can still be difficult to choose between who and that. If it is difficult to choose between the two; chances are either one is acceptable.

A few instances where both or either word is appropriate are shown below:
  • The people who/that live opposite us are nice.
  • The doctor who/that stopped to help is a former paramedic
  • We don’t watch anything that goes on after midnight.
  • The appetizer that I ordered was covered with limp parsley.
  • I wish I knew which one of us was going on the strike team.
  • My father’s meal, which was delicious, demonstrated the talent that the chef is famous for.
  • Andy, whom everyone admires, was just promoted.

2.   Choosing between Who/Whom

Whether we use who or whom depends on the pronoun’s position and function within the sentence.

If the pronoun is, or refers to the subject of the sentence, the principle is to use who. If otherwise, you should use whom.

The following are examples on correct uses of who:
  • It was Jackson who brought the supplies.
    (Here, the pronoun it, refers to the subject of the sentence, Jackson. Hence, who is correct in this context.)
  • The captain from Yellow Force is the one who called for the second alarm.
    (The pronoun one refers to the subject of the sentence, captain. Hence, who in this context is correct.)
  • The trip’s promoters were willing to settle for whom they could get.
    (The pronoun whom does not refer to the subject, promoters; it is the object of the preposition for.)
  • Jerome is the officer whom I prefer to work with.

    Remember the rule! The officer is neither a pronoun nor the subject. The subject of the sentence is I ; therefore, whom used in this instance is correct (Sometimes a better solution to prevent confusion is to rearrange or rephrase the sentence so you don’t need either who or whom. (I.e., I prefer to work with him)

Omission of the Relative Pronouns

The relative pronouns may be omitted, especially, when they are used as the object of a verb or of a preposition.

Consider the following sentences:
  • The principal (whom) we met is a British.
  • The method (that) you recommended is old-fashioned.
  • This the garden (on which) I plucked the chrysanthemum.
  • Here is the book (that) he was talking about.
Important Hint 

The distinction between who and whom has all but disappeared in spoken English and is becoming rarer in written English. Consult your instructor for guidance.