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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. 

If this sounds confusing, don’t worry! We’ll explain it all by providing answers, several relative pronoun examples and many other great tools. 

Being skilled in the English language, both writing and speaking, requires knowledge of grammar, especially the relative pronoun. Are you ready for a better understanding of what is a relative pronoun? Knowing how to use and choose them can help you excel with clear and concise writing. This way, you can demonstrate that you know the correct relative pronoun definition, and have the ability to use relative pronoun examples in your writing.

The question is, are you using the relative pronoun to your advantage? Read this article to exactly learn how to do it today! We will cover the following:

  • What are relative pronouns?: A relative pronoun definition
  • Relative clauses: A brief overview
  • Options, please!
  • Restrictive relative clauses
  • Non-restrictive relative clauses
  • Check your knowledge

What are Relative Pronouns?: A Relative Pronoun Definition

Let’s start at the very beginning with a relative pronoun definition. What is a relative pronoun, as opposed to a regular pronoun? This part of speech has two main functions: to join a main clause to a relative one, and to replace a noun or phrase from an earlier clause in a sentence. 

Are you ready to enhance your writing using the relative pronoun? We’ve answered the question “What are relative pronouns?,” but we also need to know their grammatical partner: relative clauses. 

Relative Clauses: A Brief Overview

To understand how to use a relative pronoun properly, you first must understand relative clauses. Relative clauses are somewhat easy to grasp, and make it easier to answer the question: What is a relative pronoun? 

If you’re fairly skilled in English, chances are that you already use them all the time without thinking about it! They essentially allow a sentence to have more information about someone or something (a noun) in a sentence. Relative clauses are parts of a sentence that give more information about a noun, and relative pronouns allow us to reference the noun more easily!

Using pronouns, it’s possible to modify or give more information about a noun in a natural-sounding way. So, to exhibit the relative pronoun definition and relative pronoun examples, 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) by using a relative pronoun, who

Depending on the context of the relative pronoun, this additional information may also be specifying. For instance, an earlier sentence may have described multiple doctors in the room, but only one who performed surgery.  

Now, armed with this knowledge, we can move on to answering the questions “What is a relative pronoun and how do we use them?” The relative pronoun examples below will give you insight into this word type and how to use them to your distinct advantage.

Options, Please!

Hopefully you now understand, generally, what are relative pronouns, but you may be wondering which words count as relative pronouns? There’s a specific group that can function this way: 


  • That
  • Which
  • Who
  • Whoever
  • Whom
  • Whomever
  • Whose 


These are the most common, and others may function similarly in other contexts. These include words such as when, where, and what.

If you’re wondering how to choose a relative pronoun, consider context, or the type of noun in each sentence. For example, when referring to a person or groups of people, it’s best to utilize who or whose, rather than that. Using context or sentence structure helps to narrow down your options.

Let’s take a look at some relative pronoun examples in the 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.

  • He couldn’t decide which flavor to choose at the ice-cream shop.

The relative clause is “which flavor to choose” because it is referred to by a relative pronoun. It can be removed, and the sentence still functions perfectly. Thus, we know that the sentence doesn’t require the phrase, but is more descriptive because of its inclusion.

There are many examples of relative pronouns in daily speech, you just have to know where to look. For instance, we use the word who almost more than any other word in the English language. Having more options to choose from, besides using the same ones all the time, makes you a better writer and will earn you better grades in writing classes!

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 differences between them.

Restrictive Relative Clauses

A restrictive relative pronoun is part of a phrase adding vital information to the main clause. Without this clause, the sentence will not make sense. This concept is key in understanding what is a relative pronoun.

Let’s take a look at this sentence and decide if it contains a restrictive or non-restrictive relative pronoun:

  • 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. That’s because we wouldn’t know which size the store didn’t have, which is crucial to the functioning of the sentence! “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

Let’s look at another one:

  • 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, as well as 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, then the part you removed is probably restrictive. 

If you’re still not 100% confident on relative pronouns or grammar in general, doing an online paper check can be helpful.

Non-Restrictive Relative Clauses

In some cases, a clause introduced by a relative pronoun may be non-restrictive (when the sentence still functions without the clause). The ideas included in the non-restrictive clause 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 is not required to understand the main information in the sentence — that the vacation was relaxing. 

Another example:

  • 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 second 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 another official style. It’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with more styles, and decide based on the relative pronoun definition and relative pronoun examples from this article!

Check Your Knowledge!

Whew! You did a lot! You learned a relative pronoun definition, answered “What are relative pronouns?” with a list of examples, and learned about relative clauses.

Now that you’ve covered the basics of relative pronouns and how they are used in sentences, let’s take a moment to check your knowledge of the relative pronoun definition using some relative pronoun examples. Among the sentences 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.

Were you able to choose the correct sentence? Which one was it? Out of these relative pronoun examples, the answer is the sentence that contains that, which is one of the most common relative pronouns in English.

In number 3, 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, rather than functioning like relative pronouns.

Let’s try again. Again, choose the sentence that contains a relative pronoun:

  1. Sarah ate sushi for the first time.
  2. I went to the store that my mother told me about.
  3. Where did the cat go last night?

What’s your best guess? If you’re thinking number two, you’re correct! Remember to look for keywords such as who, that and which to choose the sentence that contains a relative pronoun.

Review Questions

Let’s also test your general knowledge. Write down your answer to these questions. Re-review the guide if you need to.

  • What are relative pronouns?
  • What is a relative pronoun in relation to a relative clause?
  • What are restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses?

Now that you have an understanding of how relative pronouns connect and enrich sentences, you can easily wow your teachers with strong writing skills. Hopefully, the next time anyone asks “What is a relative pronoun?,” you’ll be able to answer them confidently and with examples!

Demonstrating that you understand what is a relative pronoun is one productive step toward mastering English. Now that we’re learned and practiced how to choose the sentence that contains a relative pronoun, the last step is to start using them in your writing.


Published March 6th, 2019. Updated May 29th, 2020.

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