In this week’s blog we are going to look at relative pronouns. I am going to speak about the relative pronouns ‘what’, ‘whom’ and ‘whose’.

It is first of all important to understand what a relative clause is. A relative clause is a clause that we use to describe a noun. It has the same function as an adjective in the sense that it describes who or what you are speaking about. For example in the sentence “I have a tie, which is blue”, the second part of that sentence, “which is blue”, is the relative clause; it describes the tie.

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There are two types of relative clause, defining and non-defining. A defining relative clause identifies who or what we are speaking about and therefore is necessary in order for the sentence to make sense. A non-defining relative clause just adds extra information to the sentence, so it isn’t necessary in order for the sentence to make sense.

We use the relative pronoun ‘what’ when we don’t mention the thing that the relative clause describes. For example if I say “he showed me what he bought in the shops”, I tell you that he bought something and the fact that he showed it to me but I don’t tell you what he bought. I could say “he showed me the jacket that he bought in the shops” and therefore I would be mentioning the thing that the relative clause describes, which is the jacket, but when we don’t mention it or we don’t want to say it, we simply use the word ‘what’. Look at this example: “they did what the teacher told them to do”. Here we know that the teacher told them to do something and that they did it but we don’t know what the teacher told them to do. Now look at this example: “they did the homework that the teacher told them to do”. In this example we know what it was that the teacher asked them to do; it was the homework. So if you don’t want to say or you feel it isn’t necessary to say, you can use the relative pronoun ‘what’ instead of the thing that the relative clause describes.

In formal English we can use the relative pronoun ‘whom’ instead of who, but we can only do this when the relative pronoun is not the subject of the verb that follows. For example we can say “I saw the man to whom I spoke at the conference”. In this sentence the subject of the verb is ‘I’, the subject is not the pronoun ‘whom’, therefore I can use whom instead of who. However, look at this sentence: “I saw the man who spoke to me at the conference”. In this sentence the pronoun ‘who’ is the subject of the verb and therefore you can not change it for the word ‘whom’. You cannot say “I saw the man whom spoke to me at the conference”. If the pronoun is the subject in the relative clause, you must use who and not whom. The subject is generally the one who does the action, so if the pronoun is doing the action, then it is the subject and it cannot be the word whom. Here’s another example: “the client whom I mentioned is waiting in the corridor”. In this sentence the word ‘I’ is the subject of the verb, not the word ‘whom’, so I could say “who I mentioned” or “whom I mentioned”; both are correct but ‘whom’ is more formal than ‘who’.

If there is a preposition at the beginning of the relative clause, it must be followed by ‘whom’ and not ‘who’. For example, “this is the client to whom I spoke on the phone”. In this sentence the word ‘to’ is a preposition and it goes at the beginning of the relative clause, therefore it is followed by ‘whom’. In normal spoken English we put the relative pronoun ‘who’ at the beginning of the relative clause and we put the preposition at the end. For example, “this is the client who I spoke to on the phone”.

We use the word ‘whose’ at the beginning of a relative clause instead of using a possessive adjective such as ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his’, ‘her’, ‘its’, ‘our’, ‘your’ or ‘their’. For example we could say “this is the man. His coat is grey”, but it isn’t a natural way to speak and making two sentences is longer and unnecessary, therefore we say “this is the man whose coat is grey”. Using the pronoun ‘whose’ makes it sound more natural and gives the message with only one sentence rather than two. Here is another example: “I know the students. Their classroom is next to mine”. However, we wouldn’t say this. We would say “I know the students whose classroom is next to mine”.

It is important to remember that we use the relative pronouns who and whom for people, we use the relative pronoun what for things and we use the relative pronoun whose for people and animals.

G.Harman
 

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