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It’s All Relative, Anyway: Introduction to Relative Pronouns

What is a relative pronoun? This particular subcategory, like its fellows, acts as a replacement for something previously identified. The key factor in defining this type, however, is that it introduces a relative clause and then functions as the primary noun in that clause.

What are Relative Pronouns?

Let’s start at the very beginning with a relative pronoun definition. This part of speech has two main functions: to join a main clause to a relative one, and to replace some noun or noun phrase from that main section. That’s a lot of complex grammar concepts, so let’s break it down by pieces.

Relative Clauses: A Brief Overview

To understand how to use a relative pronoun properly, you first must understand relative clauses. You probably use them all the time without thinking about it! They essentially modify or give more information about something in the main portion of the sentence. So let’s look at the following sentence:

  • The nurse handed the scalpel to the doctor who was performing the surgery.

In this sentence, we have a main clause (“the nurse handed the scalpel to the doctor”) and a relative clause (“who was performing the surgery”). The latter adds more information to the former by telling us what the doctor is doing (performing a surgery). Depending on the context around the sentence, that additional information might also be specifying. For instance, an earlier sentence may have described multiple doctors in the room and this clause indicates which one the nurse handed the scalpel to.

So, armed with this knowledge, we can move on to answering the main questions: what is a relative pronoun, and how do we use them?

Options, Please!

What words count as relative pronouns? There’s a specific group that can function in this way: who, whom, whoever, whomever, that, which, and whose are the most common; in some contexts, when, where, and what might function this way.

Let’s take a look at some relative pronoun examples in context of normal sentences.

  • We moved into the house that my grandparents built.

That joins the two clauses, and it refers back to house in order to give more information about the house.

  • The professor with whom I had my favorite class last year is retiring.

This one is a little trickier, because the relative clause is actually buried in between parts of the main section. “With whom I had my favorite class” identifies the specific professor described, and whom corresponds to professor.

Relative clauses come in two main varieties: restrictive and non-restrictive. A relative pronoun is likely to appear in either type, so let’s take a look at the difference between them.

Restrictive Relative Clauses

A restrictive relative clause is one that adds vital information to the main clause. Without this clause, the sentence will not make sense.

  • The store didn’t have the size that I needed.

Without the second half of the sentence, the sentence as a whole wouldn’t be a complete thought because we wouldn’t know which size the store didn’t have. “The store didn’t have the size” doesn’t make sense on its own. The pronoun that links the two clauses and alerts the reader that the rest of the identifying information will immediately follow.

  • Jane is the girl with whom I lived during college.

In this sentence, the phrase with whom explains the relationship between Jane and the speaker: they were college roommates. “Jane is the woman” is an incomplete thought; we need the remainder of the sentence to understand why the definite article the is being used and its reference.

If you’re not sure if the clause is restrictive, try taking the clause out of the sentence and reading the rest of the sentence on its own. If it seems like it’s missing something, the part you removed is probably restrictive. Doing a self-check for grammar in this way is always helpful, but you can also try our helpful tool for a full grammar check!

Non-Restrictive Relative Clauses

In some cases, a clause introduced by a relative pronoun may be non-restrictive. In other words, the information it adds is not mandatory for the sentence to be understood. The ideas included are more of a “bonus” than something crucial.

  • Our family vacation, which took a week, was relaxing for all of us.

The section in question here is “which took a week"—which refers back to vacation. However, the information conveyed by these words is not required to understand the main information in the sentence—that the vacation was relaxing.

  • Julia was named valedictorian, which surprised no one.

The clause “which surprised no one” adds information to the main clause, but the phrase “Jane was named valedictorian” is a complete thought on its own.

There are two markers that are likely to indicate a non-restrictive clause. The first is that it’s likely to be offset by commas. The other is word choice. Among relative pronouns, which is far and away the likeliest to be used in a non-restrictive clause.

Relative clauses are crucial to writing in a natural, well-organized way, and you’ll find them useful whether you’re writing in MLA format, APA format, or following another official style. It’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with more styles!

Check Your Knowledge!

Now that we’ve covered the basics of relative pronouns and how they are used in sentences, let’s take a moment to check your knowledge. Among the sentence below, choose the sentence that contains a relative pronoun:

  1. John chose the black shoes.
  2. I lived in that house as a child.
  3. The movie that we saw together was terrible.

Which one do you think?

The answer is number 3, where the word that is used to introduce the relative clause “that we saw together.” Number 2 uses the word that, but as an adjective modifying the noun house.

Now that you have an understanding of how pronouns connect with and enrich sentence structure, you can go forth and wow your teachers with your strong writing!