Relative Pronouns and How to Use Them

Get a clear definition of what a relative pronoun is, and find out when and how to use a relative pronoun. Explore several examples using relative pronouns within a sentence to improve your understanding.

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What Is a Relative Pronoun?

Before getting into how to use relative pronouns, it's important to have a solid definition of what they are. A relative pronoun is used to connect a clause or phrase to a noun or pronoun. The clause modifies or describes the noun. The most common relative pronouns are who, whom, whose, which, and that. Sometimes, when and where can be used as relative pronouns as well.

Relative Pronoun

Usage

Example

who

used for people: replaces subject pronouns like I, she, he, we, they

It was my husband who broke the car door.

whose

shows possession or relationship

This is the girl whose notes I borrowed.

whom

replaces object pronouns like me, her, him

The man whom they found was sent home.

which

used for objects and animals (typically non-defining clauses)

The robots, which were waiting outside, were ready for shipment.

that

used for people and things (typically defining clauses)

The piggy bank that was on my desk got broken.

How to Use Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns are placed directly after the noun or pronoun they modify (which are underlined in the examples below). The subject of the sentence is described by a relative clause (italicized). Since these clauses describe a noun or a pronoun, they are also known as adjective clauses because they act like adjectives in the sentence.

Each clause is introduced by a relative pronoun (in bold). Relative pronouns connect the description to the rest of the sentence in an orderly way. See how this works through a few examples.

  • The driver who ran the stop sign was careless.
  • The children, whom we love dearly, need better educational systems.
  • Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died.
  • I have a friend whose cat is annoying.
  • The book, which is now out of print, has all the information you need.
  • This is the book that everyone is talking about.

When and Where as Relative Pronouns

Occasionally, the relative adverbs when and where are also used as relative pronouns. As a relative pronoun, when introduces clauses that describe a noun that refers to a time, and where refers to a place. Check out a few different sentence examples.

  • Grandma remembers a time when radio shows were popular.
  • She remembered the day when they met.
  • The office where I work is in this building.
  • I want to visit the island where my grandma was born.

Defining vs. Non-Defining Relative Clauses

When relative pronouns are used to add descriptive information, that information is either defining or non-defining.

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Defining Clauses

A defining clause, also known as a restrictive clause, gives essential information about the noun in question. It's so important that it cannot be cut out of the sentence and still convey the intended meaning. Additionally, defining clauses require no additional punctuation. See a few examples.

  • This is the dog that was hit by a car.
  • These are the houses that have been affected.
  • These are the people who want to buy my car.
  • Give the funds to someone who needs cancer treatment.
  • I don't like people who interrupt me.

As you can see, the italicized clauses contain critical information. You can tell because if you cut out the clause, the sentence's meaning is fundamentally different. For example, saying I don't like people is very different from saying I don't like people who interrupt me.

Non-Defining Clauses

On the other hand, non-defining clauses add information that's nice to have but isn't essential to the sentence's overall meaning. They could be deleted, and the sentence would convey basically the same information. Therefore, non-defining clauses are set apart from the main sentence by commas, which help to indicate its less important status in the sentence. See a few example sentences with non-defining clauses.

  • This painting, which I adore, is worth over a million dollars.
  • The neighbor, who lives down the road, got a new car.
  • The plant, which sits in the window, is getting new leaves.
  • The teacher, who was about to retire, began writing her memoirs.
  • Billy, who I work with, just got relocated.
  • My doctor is trying a new testing method, which had a 70% success rate.

In the examples, you could cut out the non-defining clause in italics and still understand the point of the sentence. The important part is that the painting is worth a million dollars; the fact that it is adored is merely nice to know.

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Mistakes Using Relative Pronouns

When it comes to writing, mistakes are easy to make in the English language. Learn how to use the right relative pronoun for different situations.

Who vs. That

One of the most common mistakes in writing is to use the wrong relative pronoun, particularly when it comes to mixing up who and that. Who is always used to set up a relative clause that describes a person, while that is used to describe an object or non-human things.

  • I like the girl who runs fast.
  • I like the boy who is in my class.
  • The woman, who is very old, took a nap.
  • I like the dog that does tricks
  • I like the clock that chimes the hour.

Which vs. That

Another common error is to mix up that and which. When describing objects and non-human beings, that is used to introduce a defining relative clause (essential information and requires no additional punctuation), while which is used to introduce a non-defining clause (non-essential information set off by commas). See a few different examples.

  • The cat, which is very old, took a nap.
  • The hampster, which was in the cage, was running on the wheel.
  • The phone, which was ringing, was in my bedroom.
  • The cat that is very old needs to see the vet today.
  • The cells that we had tested came back as benign.
  • Here are some cookies that everyone can eat.

It’s All Relative

Knowing how relative pronouns work in a sentence will help you add important descriptive information in the form of adjective clauses. Once you understand how they work, you'll be able to decide whether your information is defining or non-defining and choose the appropriate relative pronouns and punctuation to lead your readers to a deeper understanding of your meaning. Learn more about the English language by checking out examples of adjective clauses in sentences.