Relative pronouns

What is a relative pronoun?

Wise people often say that meaning is relative. However, in the case of relative pronouns, there is a definitive list.

They stretch across the object pronoun, subject pronoun and possessive pronoun categories. We use who and whom (subject and object, respectively) to refer to people, and which and that to refer to things. For example, we might say, This is the man who brought the city of Glasgow to a complete standstill, or These are the faulty traffic lights that caused all the problems. When, where and what can also be pressed into service as relative pronouns, when needed.

There is often a lot of anxiety about when to use who or whom; there are some that have marked whom’s cards and that predict it will disappear from everyday usage like whither and yon have done. However, if you can keep track of whether you’re referring to an object (whom) or a subject (who), of whether the antecedent (the noun being replaced) is performing the verb (Chris, the man who punched Dave) or receiving it (Dave, the man whom Chris punched), then it might appear clearer.

Relative pronouns are often used after a noun to make it clear who or what is involved.

This is the dress that the Queen wore to her wedding.

Sidney was the man in this town who knew everything about china figurines.

When the pronoun is being used in this way, there is no comma, and that is generally used instead of which.

They can also be used to supply extra details about the antecedent.

The Welsh language, which is arguably the oldest of the European languages, faces many challenges.

Gemma, who was the tallest girl in the school, played Goal Attack.

As these details are included in non-restrictive relative clauses, commas are used to mark off the non-essential information, without which the sentence would still make sense. That is never used as the subject in these clauses.

Whose is used as the possessive form of who: for example, This is Adam Ant, whose last single reached number one in the charts.

Examples of relative pronouns

subject pronoun David Bowie is the man who fell to Earth
object pronoun Alice was the girl for whom Celia would do anything
possessive pronoun She was the woman whose driving amazed