Tag Archives: relative pronouns

Grammar: Pronouns Part XV—Relative

Relative pronouns—who, whom, whose, which, that, and what—introduce a relative (or subordinate) clause and relates it to the rest of the sentence.

Who Vs. Whom

Who is in subjective case. It can be used when the relative pronoun serves as the subject of the subordinate clause:

Led by Brett Favre, who played quarterback at rival Green Bay for fifteen years, the Minnesota Vikings are one game away from the Super Bowl.

Whom is in objective case. It can also be used in two situations: as the object of a verb or the object of a preposition:

Brad Childress, whom the team hired four years ago, has finally coached the Vikings to the NFC Championship game.

Crucial to the Vikings win yesterday was Sidney Rice, to whom Favre threw three touchdown passes.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out whether the relative pronoun is in subjective or objective case, substitute he or him, rewriting the sentence as necessary:

Led by Brett Favre, the Minnesota Vikings are one game away from the Super Bowl. He played quarterback at rival Green Bay for years.

Brad Childress has finally coached the Vikings to the NFC Championship game. The team hired him four years ago.

Crucial to the Vikings win yesterday was Sidney Rice. Favre threw three touchdown passes to him.

If you would use he in the sentence, then use who. If you would use him in the sentence, use whom. Just remember that the m’s in him and whom go together.

Whose is in the possessive case and thus shows ownership:

Adrian Peterson, whose running game is a constant threat, had a relatively quiet game.

Who Vs. Which Vs. That Vs. What

Use who, whom, and whose only when referring to a person. They can be used in first, second, or third person. (See examples above.)

Use which only when referring to an animal or thing:

The team, which got skunked in its last division championship by the New York Giants in 2001, goes into New Orleans with a definitive win against Dallas.

Use what only when referring to a nonliving thing:

The drubbing was exactly what the Vikings needed going into next week’s game against the Saints.

Both which and what can be used in the second or third person, but not in the first.

Use that to refer to a person, animal, or thing. It can be used in the first, second, or third person:

In the locker room after the game, Favre sang the “Pants on the Ground” song that was made famous on American Idol.

For the difference between that and which, see this previous post on comma use with subordinate clauses.

Compound Relative Pronouns

Compound relative pronouns are formed by adding the suffice -ever­ to who, whom, what, or which. Whoever, whomever, whatever, and whichever don’t point back to a noun or pronoun but refer generally to any or all people or things:

Whomever the Vikings face in the rest of the playoffs will be formidable opponents.

Whatever happens next weekend, the Vikings had a fun and exciting season.

Do you have a question about pronouns? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Pronouns

Part I—The Basics

Part II—Location, Location, Location

Part III—Number

Part IV—Person

Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

Part VI—On the Case

Part VII—Something Personal Between You and Me

Part VIII—Infinitives

Part IX—Indeterminate Gender

Part X—Indefinitely (We, You, and They)

Part XI—Indefinitely (It)

Part XII—Possession

Part XIII—Demonstrative

Part XIV—Interrogative

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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Tuesday Afternoon Punctuation: Commas, Part VII—It’s All Relative

One of the questions I hear most often from students is when to use commas with that and which. My short answer is to use commas with which; don’t use commas with that. Of course, the explanation is more complicated than that.

That and which—along with who, whom, and whose—are relative pronouns. They introduce subordinate clauses that act as adjectives, describing nouns or pronouns that precede them:

Last night I had dinner with my friend Nasha, who is moving to Abu Dhabi.

Nasha, whom I met in graduate school, leaves on Saturday morning.

In both of these examples, the relative pronouns who and whom introduce a relative clause that describes Nasha.

The relative clauses in both of these sentences are also examples of nonrestrictive clauses. That is, you could delete them from the sentence without changing your understanding of the main idea. Try it. Does my point still come across?

Put another way, a nonrestrictive clause doesn’t identify or define the noun or pronoun it’s talking about—the reader already knows that (in this case, my friend Nasha). The relative clause just adds additional information—parenthetical information—and so commas should be used:

The Abu Dhabi government, which is paying for Nasha’s lodging in addition to her tax-free salary, has hired her as a teacher.

Here, the relative clause which is paying … doesn’t provide information needed to understand the main idea of the sentence, so it’s nonrestrictive and should be set off by commas.

Another way to figure out whether a relative clause is nonrestrictive is to see whether you can rewrite it as two independent clauses. If you can without losing understanding of the main idea, it’s nonrestrictive.

The Abu Dhabi government is paying for Nasha’s lodging in addition to her tax-free salary.

The Abu Dhabi government has hired her as a teacher.

See?

You Are Now Entering a Restricted Area

If a relative clause is essential to the meaning of a sentence, however, it is called a restrictive clause. The information contained within it is not parenthetical, so no commas should be used:

Nasha did not open the package that I brought as a going-away present until she got home.

Here, without the relative clause that I brought …, the reader would have no idea what package I was talking about. It is necessary to understand the sentence, so it’s a restrictive clause and no commas should be used.

Which brings us to that versus which. That should only be used with restrictive clauses (no commas), and which should be reserved for nonrestrictive clauses (commas).

On a side note, that can sometimes be implied rather than actually included in the clause if the sentence remains clear without it:

Nasha did not open the package I brought as a going-away present until she got home.

Do you have a question about the comma? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Commas

Part I—To Serialize or Not to Serialize

Part II—Independent Thinking

Part III—Co-dependents

Part IV—Making Introductions

Part V—Interjections

Part VI—Parentheticals

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

Strunk Jr., William, and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.

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Monday Morning Grammar: Subject-Verb Agreement III—Indefinite and Relative Pronouns

So far in Mots Justes’ continuing series on subject-verb agreement, we’ve covered the basics and compound subjects. Let’s move on now to the tricky matter of indefinite and relative pronouns.

Nothing’s Definite

Indefinite pronouns substitute for nonspecific nouns. They include any, anybody, anyone, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, none, no one, someone, and something. Usually indefinite pronouns are treated as singular:

Is anyone going to Jim’s new art exhibit this weekend?
Everybody agrees that Derrick should skip the concert to go to Jim’s show.

As usual, there are exceptions. None and neither take singular verbs when they are used alone:

None is willing to miss Jim and Derrick’s annual Halloween party.
Neither has ever not celebrated the holiday.

However, when a prepositional phrase following none or neither suggests a plural meaning, use a plural verb:

None of their friends wear costumes as elaborate as Jim and Derrick do.
Neither of the hosts spare any expense when it comes to dressing up for Halloween.

Also, a handful of indefinite pronouns—all, any, and some—takes a singular or plural verb depending on the number of its antecedent:

All of the kegs have already been tapped.
However, some of the beer is still left in pitchers.

It’s All Relative

Relative pronouns set up subordinate clauses that modify a noun or pronoun. They include who, whom, whose, which, and that. Relative pronouns take the verb number that agrees with their antecedents:

Jim, who is a photographer, incorporates pictures of his friends into his artwork.
Derrick composes lyrics that tell stories from his life.

Adding to the complexity of relative pronoun-verb agreement are the phrases one of the … and only one of the …. Generally, one of the … takes a plural verb, while only one of the … takes a singular:

One of the things that always attract partygoers to Jim and Derrick’s Halloween bash is the elaborate themed buffet.

Here, the antecedent of that is things, not one.

Elisha is the only one of their friends that does not come in costume.

But here the antecedent of that is one.

Next week on Monday Morning Grammar, we wrap up our series on subject-verb agreement with a post on funky sentence construction.

Resources

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

Strunk Jr., William, and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.

Caught in the ’Net

Playwright Mark Ravenhill writes about how writers shouldn’t write about writing.

Here are “12 Greek Works You Should Know.”

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