Relative Pronouns and Their Uses, Examples, & Rules

Relative Pronouns and their Uses in English. What is a relative pronoun? A relative pronoun joins two clauses together, and so functions like conjunction (joining word). It is also used in place of a noun, and so functions as a pronoun. It is, therefore, a conjunctive pronoun.

Further, a relative pronoun also refers to (relates to) some noun going before it. The noun to which it refers is called the antecedent.

(a) Ali comes here every Friday. She is a student. Ali, who comes here every Friday, is a student.

(who-relative pronoun; Ali-antecedent)

(b) Where are the flowers? The flowers were bought in the morning.

Where are the flowers that were bought in the morning?

(that-relative pronoun; flowers-antecedent)

(c) We defeated the enemy. It was the result of our war preparations.

We defeated the enemy that was the result of our war preparations.

(that-relative pronoun; we defeated the enemy-antecedent)

(d) The windows of the houses are broken. The houses are going to be sold.

The houses whose windows are broken are going to be sold.

(whose-relative pronoun; are going to be sold-antecedent)

(e) The girls that (who) have not brought their books should leave.

“The above examples are based on defining and non-defining (adjective) clauses. A defining or restrictive clause is a necessary part of the idea of the sentence. It cannot be left out without spoiling the meaning.”

  • The people whom you trusted have left you.

“A non-defining or non-restrictive clause is not a necessary part of a sentence, that is, it can be left out without much changing the sense.

  • All the books, which you bought, are lying there.”

“The non-defining clause is placed within commas. It is not vital to the sentence.”

How relative pronouns are to be used?

1. The relative pronoun should be placed closest to the antecedent. Note the difference:

    1. The students who have passed are meeting their friends.
    2. The students are meeting their friends who have passed.

In (I) The students are shown as having passed and in (II) the friends are shown in having passed. The relative pronoun “who” should be placed close to “the students” or “their friends” according as the meaning we want to convey.

2.That” is used in defining clauses only. (Thus, in non-defining clauses, within commas it cannot be used.) (Also note the last example.)

    1. She is the best debater that I have ever heard.
    2. It is the same play that (or as) we had watched on TV.
    3. Have you done all that you were supposed to do?
    4. The guests, who have come to see you, are sitting in the drawing room.

3. The relative pronoun can be left out (omitted):

When a noun or pronoun is the object of a verb in a sentence, and is placed before the verb:

  1. These are the mangoes (which) I had bought [“the mangoes” being the object of “bought”] Where are the people (whom) you had met at the station?

“whom” is used for persons when they are objects coming before verbs.

4. The antecedent (noun or pronoun or clause) can be left out before the relative pronoun-use of “who, what, whom”:

  1. Who (he or she who) loves human beings loves God.
  2. Who (they who) cheat others cheat themselves.
  3. What (the thing which) we need is a truly great leader.
  4. She got what (the things which) she wanted.
  5. Whom (those whom) you like may not like you.

Also note:

  • Whoever or whosoever (anybody) that needs wisdom will get it.

You may select whichever or which so ever (any one of the sets) you like.

5. The relative pronoun and the antecedent must agree as to number, person and tense:

  1. He who sees the sun cannot call it the moon. I, who am your friend, cannot mislead you.
  2. Florence Nightingale is one of the bravest women that have helped humanity.
  3. This is the best one of his films which is so popular.
  4. You who are so wise commit such mistakes!

6. Use of the relative pronoun for persons or sometimes for animals and birds:

(a) Who or that is used (who more commonly) when a noun or pronoun is the subject of a verb (in the nominative case)-who instead of which for animals or birds treated as persons:

  1. The people, who (or that) work honestly, do succeed.
  2. The dog, who loves us all, is running after the rabbit.
  3. The nightingale, who sang so beautifully, brought my childhood back to me.

(b)Whom or who or that is used (grammatically whom being acceptable) when a noun or pronoun is the object of a verb. (Objective or Accusative Case)

  1. The students whom (or who or that) he taught have passed. (or) The students he taught have passed.
  2. Is she the girl (whom) you wanted to see?
  3. The seagull (whom) we saw flying is in his nest.

(c) Whose is used in the possessive form:

  • We saw the farmers whose fields had been flooded.

7. For things, animals, birds, insects and infants:

(a)Which or that (which more commonly) in the nominative case when a noun is subject:

  1. Where are the plants which (or that) you have brought?
  2. Don’t the horses, which (or that) they have hired, run fast?
  3. I can’t see the child which or who is sleeping under the tree.

(b)Which or that in the accusative case when a noun is the object or no relative pronoun is used:

  1. All the houses, which (or that) they have built, are old-fashioned.
  2. Why is the parrot, which (or that) you had trained, not speaking?

(c)Which or that is either taken to the end of the clause or is left out when a preposition

  1. The room, which (or that) they stayed in, was small. (or) The room they stayed in was small.

Relative Pronouns and Their Uses, Examples, & Rules

8. Uses of “that”:

(a) As explained in #6 above, “that” is used for persons, animals, things, birds, etc.:

  1. The soldiers that fired at the crowd have been dismissed. (who, are more common.)

(b) After third-degree adjectives (superlatives):

  1. Which is the best film of the year that you were saying you had seen?
  2. The highest mountain that we climbed in Kaghan was all green.
  3. That is perhaps the worst that you could have done to us.

(c) After all, any, more, nothing, the same, the only, the few, the little:

  1. All the people that (or who) went to the meeting listened to the speech.
  2. Any person that (or who) knows the answer should come forward. There was none that could lift the weight.
  3. We want to do nothing that pains you.
  4. Do I see the same eyes that had won my heart?
  5. It is the only problem that puzzles us.
  6. Where are the few helpers that you still have?
  7. Let us buy the little that we can to make our living pleasant and happy.

(d) After who, which, what (interrogative pronouns):

  1. Who is it that can tell me what I am?
  2. What was the question that the fair maiden asked you?
  3. Which is the road that can take us to Nila Parbat?

(e) After two antecedents, one showing a person and the other showing an animal or thing:

  1. The soldiers and the weapons that were being taken to the border were photographed.

9. As-a relative pronoun after such, the same — for persons or things:

  1. Such people as you should be honored by the state.
  2. This story is such as I can’t understand easily. The teacher will fail as few students as possible.
  3. This is not the same person as (or that) I was talking about.

That is a conjunction when it is used after “such.”: It was not such an offer that we might accept it.

10. But functions as a relative pronoun after words giving a negative meaning:

  1. We can find no man but wants to become rich (= … who does not want to become rich.)
  2. There is no beautiful woman but is proud (= … who is not proud.)

Use of “who” and “what” (to repeat)

who” is used for he, she or they; “who” and “what” for the thing or things which:

  1. Who (he who) hates his fellow beings is not liked by God.
  2. Who (they who) play fair succeed in the game of life.
  3. What we aspire after (the things which we aspire after) is ability, nobility and capability.
  4. The students explained what (the things which) they lacked.

Who and what, thus have the antecedents he, she, the thing, etc.