grammar writing rules

Breaking Down Relative Pronouns

You know how your relatives can be, well, complicated? Maybe you have an uncle to whom you would rather not introduce your friends and a cousin who always says embarrassing things.

Relative pronouns are kind of like that: complicated, messy and a little confusing. Once you get to know them, however, you’ll fall in love with them. Well, maybe not, but you will at least know when it’s appropriate to have them around.

What Is a Relative Pronoun?

Let’s talk definitions. What’s a relative pronoun? A relative pronoun introduces a type of dependent clause known as a relative clause. These clauses are used to modify either a word, phrase or an idea, or what we call the antecedent. The most common relative pronouns are whoever/whomever, that, which, whose and who/whom. Check out these relative pronoun examples:

  • The article that she wrote was hilarious.
  • The writer, whom I really respect, typically makes me laugh.

To figure out which relative pronoun and which punctuation you use, you need to determine the kind of relative clause you have. This is where things start to get tricky.

Restrictive Relative Clauses

A restrictive or defining relative clause is not separated from the main clause with commas. These clauses give vital information that affect the meaning – and even sensibility – of the sentence.

In these terms, a relative pronoun can act as a subject, object or possessive.

Examples of relative pronouns as subjects:

  • I will never quite understand people who do not care about punctuation.
  • This is the stuff that keeps me up at night.

Examples of relative pronouns as objects (typically used in formal English):

  • This is the city in which I lived when I learned that “supposably” is not a word.
  • He is the man to whom I addressed the proper spelling of “your” and “you’re.”
  • The school did not have the writing course that I wanted.

*When using relative pronouns as objects of a preposition in restrictive clauses, you should always use “which” instead of “that.”*

Examples of relative pronouns as a possessive:

  • The book whose author was a comedian was turned into a movie.
  • The woman whose writing lacked proper relative pronoun use never got a good job.

You might notice that some of these sentences sound a little funny, especially those that use the word “whom.” While conversationally you might omit the relative pronoun, formal English writing demands its use.

Non-Restrictive Relative Clauses

A non-restrictive relative clause gives information that, while useful, is not a necessary part of the sentence. Therefore, the clause may be separated through the use of commas. You’ll notice that in nearly all cases, “which” is the preferred relative pronoun.

Examples of relative pronouns as the subject:

  • The article, which was informative, detailed information about relative pronouns.
  • The book she wrote won an award, which shocked her parents.

Examples of relative pronouns as an object:

  • The couch, which she longed for as she wrote, sat empty in the living room.
  • The cold basement in which she was forced to type was dark and dingy.

Special Considerations

There are a few situations to keep in mind when using relative pronouns. For example, in formal writing, “who” should be used when referring to a person instead of “that”. Check out these relative pronoun examples illustrating the point:

  • I am looking for people who are can use relative pronouns appropriately.
  • The man who wrote the book on the subject lives over there.

The word “that” should be used after the pronouns few, little, every, everything, any, anything, all, none, no, nothing, some, something, none and much:

  • To write well is all that she wants.
  • We try to cover every aspect that is associated with grammar.

Lastly, use “that” when the noun is modified by a superlative adjective:

  • That was the best explanation that I could give.

Relative Pronouns: Got It?

Feel good about relative pronoun examples now? Or are you still confused about what a relative pronoun is? If you still have questions on the subject (or you have wisdom to impart to others), please let us know in the comments below!


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