How to Use Relative Pronouns in Adjective Clauses

Helen Keller With Indian Poet Tagore
Helen Keller With Indian Poet Tagore 1930.

 Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

An adjective clause (also called a relative clause) is a group of words that works like an adjective to modify a noun or noun phrase. Here we'll focus on the five relative pronouns that are used in adjective clauses.

An adjective clause usually begins with a relative pronoun: a word that relates the information in the adjective clause to a word or a phrase in the main clause.

Who, Which, and That

Adjective clauses most often begin with one of these three relative pronouns:


All three pronouns refer to a noun, but who refers only to people and which refers only to things. That may refer to either people or things. Here are a few examples, with the adjective clauses in italics and the relative pronouns in bold.

  1. Everyone turned and looked at Toya, who was still standing behind the counter.
  2. Charlie's old coffee machine, which hadn't worked in years, suddenly started to gurgle and splutter.
  3. The ticking sound was coming from the little box that was sitting on the windowsill.

In the first example, the relative pronoun who refers to the proper noun Toya. In sentence two, which refers to the noun phrase Charlie's old coffee machine. And in the third sentence, that refers to the little box. In each of the examples, the relative pronoun functions as the subject of the adjective clause.

Sometimes we can omit the relative pronoun from an adjective clause--as long as the sentence still makes sense without it. Compare these two sentences:

  • The poem that Nina chose was "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks.
  • The poem Ø Nina chose was "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks.

Both sentences are correct, though the second version may be considered just a little less formal than the first one. In the second sentence, the gap left by the omitted pronoun (identified by the symbol Ø) is called a zero relative pronoun.

Whose and Whom

Two other relative pronouns used to introduce adjective clauses are whose (the possessive form of who) and whom (the object form of who). Whose begins an adjective clause that describes something that belongs to or is a part of someone or something mentioned in the main clause:

The ostrich, whose wings are useless for flight, can run faster than the swiftest horse.

Whom stands for the noun that receives the action of the verb in the adjective clause:

Anne Sullivan was the teacher whom Helen Keller met in 1887.

Notice that in this sentence Helen Keller is the subject of the adjective clause, and whom is the direct object. Put another way, who is equivalent to the subject pronouns he, she, or they in a main clause; whom is equivalent to the object pronouns him, her, or them in a main clause.

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Nordquist, Richard. "How to Use Relative Pronouns in Adjective Clauses." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). How to Use Relative Pronouns in Adjective Clauses. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "How to Use Relative Pronouns in Adjective Clauses." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).

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