In this post, we’ll cover relative pronoun comprehensively, including how it’s used in sentences.
What is relative pronoun?
Consider these sentences about my visit to hospital.
I went to the hospital. There, I met Dr Johnson. He attended the same school as I did.
Such short, similar sentences in succession make writing monotonous and boring. What if we can join two of them?
I went to the hospital. There, I met Dr Johnson, who attended the same school as I did.
Note: In all the examples, relative pronoun has been shown in bold and the noun (or noun phrase) being pointed to by the relative pronoun has been shown in magenta font.
A relative pronoun (who in the above sentence) is used to join two sentences that share a noun or pronoun: Dr Johnson and he (highlighted in bold) are one and the same. We replaced he with a relative pronoun who to form the relative clause who attended the same school as I did and attached it to the first sentence. Here, he was already in the front position. If it wasn’t, we would have still put the relative pronoun in the front position (see the next example below).
Why is it called relative pronoun? The word relative comes from relative pronoun’s function of relating (or acting as bridge between) two parts of the same sentence – Dr Johnson and who attended the same school as I did. The word pronoun comes from its function of pointing to a noun – Dr Johnson. (If you recall, who replaced Dr Johnson in the last of the three sentences, just like pronouns do.)
Keep in mind that the main information we want to convey should be in the independent clause and not the relative clause. For example, we shouldn’t write the above sentence as (comments that go with examples are in square brackets):
The doctor, whom I met, attended the same school as I did. [Comment: Don’t bother about who, whom, etc. at this stage; we’ll cover it later.]
In the above sentence, we’re putting main information in the relative clause, which turns things upside down.
A relative pronoun does two things:
1. It starts (or introduces) a relative clause
A relative pronoun points to the preceding noun (who points to Dr Johnson) and also starts a relative clause (who starts the relative clause who attended the same school as I did).
Note that the entire clause describes – or gives more information about – the preceding noun (who attended the same school as I did describes Dr Johnson).
2. It plays a grammatical role in the clause
A relative pronoun can also play a grammatical role of subject or object in the clause it introduces. Remember, a clause has to have at least a subject and a verb.
Don’t be a parasite who only takes and takes from a friend. [Who is the subject of the relative clause who only takes and takes from a friend.]
I can’t find the watch that you bought last week. [That is the object of the relative clause that you bought last week. You is the subject here.]
A way to find what role does the relative pronoun play in the clause is to write the clause as a sentence, replacing the relative pronoun with the noun it points to.
The parasite only takes and takes from a friend. [Parasite is subject of the sentence, and hence the relative pronoun who is subject in the clause.]
You bought the watch last week. [Note that you can’t write Watch you bought last week as a sentence. Watch is object of the sentence, and hence the relative pronoun that is the object in the clause. What’s the subject of the sentence? You. Hence, you is the subject of the clause.]
There are five relative pronouns: who, whom, whose, which, and that. Of these, whom can’t be the subject of the clause and whose can be the subject in association with other nouns. (More on individual relative pronouns later in the post.) In this sentence, for example, whose engine, and not whose, is the subject of the relative clause.
The car whose engine is out of order has been gathering dust for a month now.
But for that, other relative pronouns are same as question words, which can create confusion. But relative pronouns are different. They don’t ask questions; as a pronoun, they merely point to a noun.
Relative pronouns can sometimes be dropped
Wherever possible, we omit relative pronouns to make sentences more concise. Yes, even a word less matters. The omission is governed by some rules though.
Earlier, we saw that a relative pronoun can be the subject or object of a relative clause. When a relative pronoun is restrictive and is not acting as subject of the clause, it can be left out. (Note that a restrictive relative clause is an essential part of the sentence as it makes the noun specific; it comes without commas. A non-restrictive clause, in contrast, is not an essential part of the sentence as it merely adds extra information; it comes with a pair of commas. To learn more about the difference, refer to the post on restrictive vs. non-restrictive clause.) Omitting relative pronouns is common in writing, but it’s even more common in speaking. Examples:
The laptop (that) my brother bought during Black Friday Sale isn’t working. [that is restrictive, and it’s not the subject of the clause (my brother is). Both conditions met. Hence, you can drop that, shown in brackets.]
Don’t ask questions (which) people can’t or don’t want to answer. [which is restrictive, and it’s not the subject of the clause (people is). Both conditions met. Hence, you can drop which, shown in brackets.]
John is the person (whom) I trusted so much. [whom is restrictive, and it’s not the subject of the clause (I is). Both conditions met. Hence, you can drop whom.]
The heart that loves is always young. [that is restrictive, but it’s the subject of the clause. Only one condition met. Hence, it can’t be dropped.]
He has a pet dog, whom he adores. [whom is not the subject of the clause, but it’s non-restrictive. Only one condition met. Hence, it can’t be dropped.]
Diamond, which is extremely hard and expensive, is produced by intense heat and under great pressure. [which is the subject of the clause, and the clause is non-restrictive. Both conditions fail. Hence, it can’t be dropped.]
If the relative pronoun is accompanied by a preposition, the relative pronoun is omitted and the preposition is shifted to the end of the relative clause.
The footballer about whom people don’t know much played key role in today’s match.
The footballer people don’t know much about played key role in today’s match.
Such dropped relative pronouns are called zero relatives or elliptical relatives or implied relatives. Of the five relative pronouns, they’re most common with that and never occur with whose.
We saw leaving out relative pronouns as a way to make writing concise. But the clause exists even after dropping the relative pronoun. In the first sentence, for examples, the remaining part has its own subject (my brother) and verb (bought).
However, a more advanced step to make writing concisely is to reduce a relative clause to a phrase, a tool commonly used by professional writers.
Examples of five relative pronouns
As we saw earlier, there are five relative pronouns: who, whom, whose, which, and that. Here are few examples of each of them along with information on where they’re used.
To get the most out of these examples, satisfy yourself that the relative pronoun indeed points to the highlighted noun and whether it can be dropped (mentioned in the comments wherever they can be dropped).
Relative pronoun who is used to refer to people and sometimes pets. Although who can also be used to refer to group of people such as team, committee, group, council, and fire brigade, which is a better alternative. Examples:
Jeff Bezos, while narrating his growing-up years, mentioned how he learnt resourcefulness from his grandfather, who could perform small maintenance tasks at his farm on his own. [Noun in magenta font and the relative pronoun in bold]
My dog, who greets me enthusiastically when I return home, was uncharacteristically silent today. [Who points to a pet here.]
He who hesitates is lost.
Someone who gossips to you about someone else will, sooner or later, gossip about you to others.
I chatted with my colleague, who is going through tough time after loss of a family member, to divert his attention and cheer him up.
Relative pronoun whom, which is often preceded by a preposition, is also used to refer to people. Both who and whom refer to people, but whereas the former always takes the subject position, the latter always takes the object position. Learn more:
We’ve gone through more than 400 resumes for this role but have found just two (whom) we can call for interview. [Relative pronoun can be dropped. That’s why it has been enclosed in brackets.]
He is a person (whom) you can disagree with, and he won’t mind. [Relative pronoun can be dropped.]
What I’m saying is devote more time to people (whom) you want to be good friends with. [Relative pronoun can be dropped.]
The person (whom) I trusted blindly betrayed me. [Relative pronoun can be dropped.]
Sam, whom I trusted blindly, betrayed me. [Relative pronoun can’t be dropped because the clause is non-restrictive.]
Relative pronoun whose is used to express possession for anything (people, animals, and things). For expressing possession for things, of which is recommended, but more common in use is whose (even for things) as it sounds smoother and straightforward.
The car of which engine is out of order has been gathering dust for a month now. [Noun in magenta font and the relative pronoun in bold]
The car whose engine is out of order has been gathering dust for a month now.
Most Covid deaths have happened in states whose hospitals have run out of capacity.
James, whose pictures were used by the magazine without consent, sued the publication.
Federer changed the racket whose strings had snapped.
Federer, whose illustrious tennis career has inspired many, is struggling with injuries of late.
Relative pronoun which is used to refer to animals and things. Examples:
In the modern workplace, the metaphor for ideal skillset is T-shaped skillset, which means deep expertise in one field and shallow knowledge of few related fields.
Participial phrases, which act adjectivally, too are pretty mobile.
You can’t put a person in a role for(which) he doesn’t possess skills. [Relative pronoun can be dropped and for moved to after skills.]
Having moderate amount of something may be beneficial than having excess, which may be harmful.
Greenhouse gases, which originate mainly from human activities such as transportation, electricity, and industry, are warming our planet to a dangerous level.
See more such examples of which:
Relative pronoun that is used to refer to animals and things. It can sometimes be used to refer to people, but prefer who or whom, which are specifically meant for people. Unlike other relative pronouns though, that takes only restrictive clauses. Since both which and that are used for non-humans, they create some confusion. Learn more:
The family that eats together stays together.
A rare, precious opportunity that comes with some problems is better than a regular opportunity that is perfect.
I joined the weight-loss program that promised reduction of 10 kgs in a month.
She may be assigned the project (that) she worked on last year. [Relative pronoun can be dropped.]
You can combine multiple activities that are similar in nature to avoid switching back and forth.
See more such examples of that:
Here is a brief summary of the five relative pronouns:
Relative pronoun with prepositions and quantifiers
Occasionally, relative pronouns may come in other flavors: a preposition or a quantifier may precede it. Here are few examples of each type.
The footballer about whom not much is known in the public domain played key role in today’s match. [Preposition about precedes relative pronoun whom.]
That’s a mistake for(which) I can’t be held responsible. [Relative pronoun can be dropped and for moved to after responsible.]
It’s difficult to advise a person on a matter in(which) she is an expert. [Relative pronoun can be dropped and in moved to after expert.]
Relative pronouns may be preceded by quantifiers (example: all, some, none, many, and two) followed by the preposition of.
Twenty students appeared for the interview, all of whom were shortlisted for the next round.
I invested in ten different companies, three of which returned losses.
The author, none of whose books have done well, is writing another.
How relative pronouns help your writing?
Relative pronouns are a stepping stone towards relative clauses, which help combine sentences sharing the same noun. Combining such sentences adds another tool to vary your sentences.
Second, knowing how to drop relative pronouns, wherever possible, makes your writing concise and smoother to read.
Exercise on relative pronoun
Which of the five relative pronouns would be the best fit in each of the following examples?
1. A person _____ depends on others for financial or other assistance cannot offend them by speaking impolitely.
2. People can do things in love _____ may look madness.
3. When taking up a task _____ has no playbook to follow, we plan a lot and think a lot but don’t act.
4. The club fired the coach, _____ fate was as sealed after the team’s early exit from the tournament.
5. The lioness _____ leg was injured in a trap recovered fully.
1. We started out with building a product for masses and then we diverted to a niche product _____ is more likely to work.
2. There is glut of smartphone brands in the market, most of _____ are good.
3. Anyone _____ speaks the language can teach the language.
4. The missing boy for _____ advertisements were run on TV was eventually found by the police.
5. Scientists are studying people _____ immunity hasn’t gone down against Corona virus a year after the infection.
2. Which (this is an example of quantifier + of + relative pronoun)
4. Whom (this is an example of preposition + relative pronoun)