Who, whose, which, and that

Relating an idea to a previously mentioned idea

What are words like who, whom, whose, which, that doing in sentences. They are relative pronouns. They are pronouns that "relate" a noun (or another pronoun) to an action in the sentence. They are similar in function to these words: where, when, why which are relative adverbs.

Here are these words in subordinate clauses (they make their clauses subordinate):

...which I could see clearly...

...who continued to play the drums

...where I had just been standing only 30 seconds earlier.

A relative clause does not express a complete thought (it leaves us waiting for more information) and so it is dependent. How these clauses are incorporated into a sentence is achieved by the use of punctuation, and the form of punctuation will depend on whether they contain essential information (no commas) or non-essential information (needing commas). The commas can change the meaning of the sentence, as you will see in the activity for this lesson.

Essential relative clauses

An essential relative clause provides essential information to help the reader identify specifically the person or item being spoken about. Note that there are no commas separating the relative clause from its person (or thing) in the sentence.

The tree fell at the spot where I had just been standing only 30 seconds earlier.

Non-essential relative clauses

Non-essential relative clauses are signalled by placing a comma both before and after the clause.

My cat, who is a Birman, has a serious problem with furballs.

They are non-essential because when removed from the sentence, there is still a complete sentence remaining, with a complete idea. (That is why they are called non-essential.)

Sam, who continued to play the drums loudly and late into the night, annoyed his flatmates so much that eventually they kicked him out.

I have made many mistakes in my life, which I can see clearly now, but I wouldn't change a thing.

Relative clauses and prepositions

Sometimes students have difficulty moving their preposition from the end of their sentence (common in spoken or informal English) and placing it adjacent to the relative pronoun as required for academic writing.

Informal: The person whom this call was intended for.
Formal: The person for whom this call was intended.

Informal: Are those the students whom you were arguing with?
Formal: Are those the students with whom you were arguing?

This difference can be seen in extended sentences as well. Look at the example below.

Informal: The habitat where the animals had first come from was completely destroyed.
Formal: The habitat from where the animals had first come was completely destroyed.

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