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Relative pronouns & adjectives

 Who, which, that, whoever, what and others

This page looks at all the different relative pronouns and adjectives in English.
For more details on  forming and using different types of relative clauses, see Relative clauses

Page Index : Relative pronouns Nominal relative pronous
Relative adjectives When, why, where & more

♣ 1. Relative pronouns - Functions and forms

In their most common usage, relative pronouns introduce a relative clause  - either as a subject (who, which, that) , or as a direct object (whom, which, that), or in the context of a prepositional phrase (to whom, with which, by which, etc).  They are called "relative" because in a declarative sentence, they relate to a noun that has normally just been mentioned.
  The most common and most recognised relative pronouns are who, whom, whose, which and that.
Relating to ► Animate (person). Inanimate (thing). Either
Subject pronouns who which that
Object pronouns whom (see note 1 below) which that
Pronouns after prepositions (to, with, by...) whom (to, with, by...) which
Possessive relative pronouns   These do not exist
Possessive relative adjectives whose of which whose

  • This is the man who sold me a stolen mobile phone
  • There were several people at the party, whom I'd never met before.
  • There were a lot of people at the party, that I'd never met before
  • The machine, which had been running non-stop for 3 days, just stopped.
  • The machine, that had been running non-stop for 3 days, just stopped.
  • I know the man to whom you were talking
  • I was in a very complex situation, from which I could see no way out.
  • The events that occurred on Friday were rather alarming.

 There is no such thing as a possessive relative pronoun : it is necessary to use the posessive relative adjective whose, qualifying a noun, or else use a prepositional structure. In other words, the word whose is never found on its own at the start of a relative clause.
  • The President, whose wife was a film star, was not very popular.
  • He found a very old statue whose age was impossible to determine.
    We cannot say
  • This is my elder brother, whose I was talking
    We have to use the prepositional form with of (or another preposition)
  • This is my elder brother of whom I was talking

Note 1.  Whom.  English, like all other languages, changes over time. It always has done, and it always will.  The word whom illustrates this process of change in today's world.
   As an object pronoun, whom is slowly disappearing from the English language; it still survives in formal written English, but in spoken English and informal written English, it is either omitted or else is replaced with who or that.
   Whom still remains as the relative pronoun that has to be used after prepositions.
  • Written: formal: The people whom they met in London were very kind.
  • Spoken: formal and informal : The people they met in London were kind.
  • Spoken; informal:  The people who they met in London were very kind.

 ♣ 2. Nominal relative pronouns What whatever  etc. 

2.1. What

What is used as a "nominal relative pronoun" (sometimes called "free relative pronoun") .  In this case, it is a single word which combines both the antecedent (stated or implied) and the relative pronoun.  Thus it corresponds, for instance, to French ce que or Spanish lo que, el que, etc.
  • After what happened yesterday, you ought to be more careful.
  • You'll have to manage with what you can find.
  • What he said was rather interesting

2.2. Whoever, whatever, whichever

Though they are less common than what, whoever whatever and whichever  are all used as nominal personal pronouns, standing in the place of a noun + relative clause.
  • Whoever heard such an ridiculous argument ?
          Meaning :  Is there any person who heard such a ridiculous argument ?
  • Whoever lost the key ought to find it again pretty quickly.
          Meaning :  The person who lost the key ought.....
  • Whatever you say, I'm not going to change my opinion.
          Meaning :  You can say anything that you want, but I'm....
  • We'll give the prize to whoever gets the right answer first.
  • You'll have to manage with whatever you can find.
  • He'll take whichever he prefers.

 ♣ 3.  Relative adjectives

3.1. Whose, what and which
Whose is the possessive relative adjective, as noted above.

What and which can also be used as relative adjectives, at the start of a relative clause
  • Do you know what languages he speaks ?.
  • I don't know which train to take
  • The President  knows which people he wants to talk to.
  • Nobody could understand to which laws he was referring.
  • He reached the village, at which point he stopped for a drink.

3.2.  Whichever and whatever

Whichever and whatever - but NOT  whoever - can also be used as relative adjectives, standing before a noun.
  • Whichever team wins, he'll be a happy man.!
          Meaning :  The team that wins can be one or the other, and he'll..
  • We'll have to stay in whatever hotel we can find.
          Meaning :  We'll have to stay in any hotel which we can find
  • My Dad's promised to buy me whatever laptop I want if I pass my exam.

♣ 4. When, why, where and how

4.1. Many students are surprised to learn that when, why, where and how, and also the longer forms whenever,  wherever and however,  also function as nominal relative pronouns .  As relative pronouns, they are used to replace a longer phrase that would include a standard relative pronoun such as whom or which.
  • We don't know when he's coming
          Meaning :  We don't know the time at which he's coming.
  • Can you explain why you did that?.
          Meaning :  Can you explain for what reason you did that ?
  • I can't remember where I left my car.
          Meaning :  I can't remember the place in which I left my car.
  • In the town where I was born, lived a man who sailed to sea...
          From the Beatles' Yellow Submarine. Where means in which.
  • I hope you know how to mend it !.
          Meaning :  I hope you know the way in which to mend it?
  • Whenever his son comes to stay, they go out to a good restaurant.
          Meaning :  Each time that his son comes....
  • Wherever he goes, he leaves a trail of damage behind him.
          Meaning :  He leaves a trail of damage in every place to which he goes
  • However I try, I can't  get the right answer.
          Meaning :  I spite of all the ways in which I have tried, I can't get...

4.2. Relative adverb :  however

However can also be used as a relative adverb, qualifying an adjective or adverb.
  • However hard I try, I can't manage to find the right answer!
          Meaning : I can't find the answer even if I try in ways which are very hard.
  • We'll have plenty of food however many people actually come.
          Meaning :  The number of people who come is not important, we'll have...

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Cette page en français:
Les propositions relatives en anglais


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