Relative pronouns (who, which, that, whose, whom)

(Use of relative pronouns and adverbs in English)

Table of contents – relative pronouns

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Relative pronouns
  2. Particularities
  3. Further explanations and exercises

What are relative pronouns? How are they used (explanation)?

In the English language, there are five relative pronouns and three relative adverbs, which principally fulfil the same purpose. All of them serve primarily to introduce relative clauses. Compare the following possible occurrences of such pronouns and adverbs:

  • Usage of relative pronouns for relative clauses:
    • who’ … is used exclusively for persons/people:
      • “The flight attendant who helped me was very nice.”
    • which’ … stands for things and animals:
      • “The book which I gave you is very interesting, isn’t it?”
    • that’ … is used for things, animals, and people:
      • “The car that crashed into the house is completely damaged.”
    • whose’ … is a possessive relative pronoun and refers to persons as well as things and animals:
      • “My friend Sandra, whose brothers live in Australia, is going to visit me.”
    • whom’ … is the object form of the relative pronoun ‘who’ and is utilised almost only in written and formal English for persons. In spoken and informal English, the pronoun ‘who’ is preferred to ‘whom’:
      • “The girl whom Peter met the other day is 28 years old.”
  • In addition, the three English relative adverbs (‘when, where’, and ‘why’) can also be employed in relative clauses. Some examples of how they may occur in sentences:
    • “Six years ago, when my brother got married, I was working in China.”
    • “This is the place where we kissed for the first time.”
  • Attention: The relative pronouns can also function as question words (‘who, which, whose’, etc.). In such a case, they usually appear at the beginning of a question:
    • Which of the colours do you like best?”
    • Who did you meet there?”

What are the particularities of using relative pronouns in English?

In fact, it is possible to choose between ‘who’ and ‘that’ for persons and between ‘that’ and ‘which’ for things and animals in defining relative clauses. However, ‘that’ is preferred when one of the following words appears in the context. Compare the particularities in these cases:

  • that’ (for persons, things, and animals) is preferably used instead of ‘who’ and ‘which’ …
    1. … when superlatives are mentioned before:
      • best, lowest, most expensive, fastest, highest, most interesting, cheapest, worst, nicest, etc.
      • Example:
        • “This is the most interesting movie that I’ve ever seen.”
    2. … if one of the following words comes before the relative pronoun:
      • every/everything
      • all
      • any/anything
      • much
      • some/something
      • first
      • no/nothing
      • few
      • none
      • only
      • little
      • Example sentences:
        • “This is the only key that opens the lock.”
        • “Is there anything that we can do for you?”

Further explanations related to the ‘Relative pronouns’

The following explanations are related to the topic ‘Relative pronouns and adverbs in English (who, which, that, whose, whom)’ and might also be helpful: