Definition and Examples of Relative Pronouns in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

relative pronouns
The five relative pronouns in English. (Gary S Chapman/Getty Images)

In English grammar, a relative pronoun is a pronoun that introduces an adjective clause (also called a relative clause). 

The standard relative pronouns in English are which, that, who, whom, and whose. Who and whom refer only to people. Which refers to things, qualities, and ideas—never to people. That and whose refer to people, things, qualities, and ideas.

Examples and Observations

  • "One of the smaller girls did a kind of puppet dance while her fellow clowns laughed at her. But the tall one, who was almost a woman, said something very quietly, which I couldn't hear." (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969)
  • "Spaghetti at her table, which was offered at least three times a week, was a mysterious red, white, and brown concoction." (Maya Angelou, Mom & Me & Mom, 2013)
  • "Wilbur was what farmers call a spring pig, which simply means that he was born in springtime."
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web, 1952)
  • "On the plus side, death is one of the few things that can be done just as easily lying down." (Woody Allen, "The Early Essays." Without Feathers, 1975)
  • "An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support."
    (attributed to John Buchan)
  • "[T]o hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."
    (Lillian Hellman, letter to the chair of the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities, May 19, 1952)
  • "He was a Frenchman, a melancholy-looking man. He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life's gas-pipe with a lighted candle; of one whom the clenched fist of Fate has smitten beneath the temperamental third waistcoat-button."
    (P. G. Wodehouse, "The Man Who Disliked Cats")
  • "The people who had it hardest during the first few months were young couples, many of whom had married just before the evacuation began, in order not to be separated and sent to different camps. . . . All they had to use for room dividers were those army blankets, two of which were barely enough to keep one person warm. They argued over whose blanket should be sacrificed and later argued about noise at night."
    (Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar, 1973)
  • "In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid."
    (Joseph Heller, Something Happened, 1974)
  • "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."
    (Nelson Algren, quoted in Newsweek, July 2, 1956)
  • "Franz Ferdinand would have gone from Sarajevo untouched had it not been for the actions of his staff, who by blunder after blunder contrived that his car should be slowed down and that he should be presented as a stationary target in front of Princip, the one conspirator of real and mature deliberation, who had finished his cup of coffee and was walking back through the streets, aghast at the failure of himself and his friends, which would expose the country to terrible punishment without having inflicted any loss on authority."
    (Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia. Viking, 1941)

That and Which in American English

"Interestingly enough, American usage manuals and US editorial practice for almost a century now have been based on the fiction that a clear functional separation between that and which should exist—which is either an interesting case of a collective illusion taking hold among educated members of a speech community or a modern-day revival of the 18th-century impulse to bring natural language into line with logic and thus remove its perceived defects. Whatever its motivation, prescriptive teaching, in this case, has not been without effect: a comparison between British and American databases . . . shows restrictive which to be seriously under-represented in American English in comparison to British English."
(Geoffrey Leech, Marianne Hundt, Christian Mair, and Nicholas Smith, Change in Contemporary English: A Grammatical Study. Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Who, Which, That, and the Zero Relativizer

"Three relative pronouns stand out as being particularly common in English: who, which, and that. The zero relativizer [or dropped relative pronoun] is also relatively common. However, . . . the relative pronouns are used in very different ways across registers. For example: In general, the relative pronouns that begin with the letters wh- are considered to be more literate. In contrast, the pronoun that and the zero relativizer have a more colloquial flavor and are preferred in conversation."
(Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech, Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Pearson, 2002)

  • That and zero are the preferred choices in conversation, although relative clauses are generally rare in that register.
  • Fiction is similar to conversation in its preference for that.
  • In contrast, news shows a much stronger preference for which and who, and academic prose strongly prefers which.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Relative Pronouns in English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Relative Pronouns in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Relative Pronouns in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).