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The English Relative Pronoun System

Relative pronouns are both a type of pronoun that take the place of another word, phrase, or clause and a type of subordinating conjunction that introduce adjective, or relative, clauses. Adjective clauses perform the function of noun phrase modifier within noun phrases. The nine relative pronouns in English grammar are:

  • who
  • whom
  • that
  • which
  • Ø (null relative pronoun)
  • whose
  • when
  • where
  • why

In addition to functioning as subordinators, relative pronouns also perform syntactic functions within adjective clauses. Syntactic functions are grammatical functions that relate to other grammatical functions within the syntax, or word order, of a sentence. The seven syntactic functions that relative pronouns perform in English grammar are:

  1. Subject
  2. Direct object
  3. Object complement
  4. Indirect object
  5. Prepositional complement
  6. Determinative
  7. Adjunct adverbial

Subject

The first grammatical function that relative pronouns perform is the subject. A subject is a word, phrase, or clause that performs the action of or acts upon the verb. Consider, for example, the following sentences:

  1. The cat eats special food.
  2. The cat has health problems.
  3. The cat that eats special food has health problems.

In the third sentence, the adjective clause is that eats special food. The relative pronoun that replaces the noun phrase the cat, which is the subject of the clause.

The three relative pronouns that can function as the subject of an adjective clause are that, who, and which. Other examples of relative pronouns functioning as subjects include the following:

  • My aunt really enjoyed the pie that is covered in whipped cream.
  • Harry Potter is the boy who lived.
  • The problem, which may delay production, resulted from a miscommunication.

Direct Object

The second grammatical function that relative pronouns perform is the direct object. A direct object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a transitive verb and answers the question “who?” or “what?” receives the action of the verb. Consider, for example, the following sentences:

  1. The soup tasted too spicy.
  2. My dog devoured the soup.
  3. The soup that my dog devoured tasted too spicy.

In the third sentence, the adjective clause is that my dog devoured. The relative pronoun that replaces the noun phrase the soup, which is the direct object of the clause.

The five relative pronouns that can function as the direct object of an adjective clause are that, whom, which, Ø and informally who. Other examples of relative pronouns functioning as direct objects include the following:

  • The book that you stole belongs to the library.
  • The man whom you hit with your car owns the local ice cream store.
  • The booklet, which James forgot, explained the instructions.
  • The coat Ø he forgot must  belong to his wife.
  • I do not trust the woman who you call every morning.

Object Complement

The third grammatical function that adjectives and adjective phrases perform is the object complement. An object complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows and modifies the direct object. Consider, for example, the following sentences:

  • You appointed me the position.
  • The position comes with a nice pay raise.
  • The position that you appointed me comes with a nice pay raise.

In the third sentence, the adjective clause is that you appointed me. The relative pronoun that replaces the noun phrase the position, which is the object complement of the clause.

The three relative pronouns that can function as the direct object of an adjective clause are that, which, and Ø. Other examples of relative pronouns functioning as object complements include the following:

  • The green that you painted the living room is absolutely horrendous.
  • You should never repeat that awful name, which I know you called me.
  • I really hate the color Ø my husband painted the house.

Indirect Object

The fourth grammatical function that relative pronouns perform is the indirect object. An indirect object is word, phrase, or clause that indicates to or for whom or what the action of a ditransitive verb is performed. Consider, for example, the following sentences:

  1. The man bought the woman flowers.
  2. The woman works at my office.
  3. The woman that the man bought flowers works at my office.

In the third sentence, the adjective clause is that the man bought flowers. The relative pronoun that replaces the noun phrase the woman, which is the indirect object of the clause.

The five relative pronouns that can function as the indirect object of an adjective clause are that, whom, which, Ø and informally who. Other examples of relative pronouns functioning as indirect objects include the following:

  • Some people that you buy gifts are just ungrateful.
  • The stranger whom my boss gave a job broke the copier.
  • The cookies are from those children, which my brother sold jelly beans.
  • I really dislike the cousin Ø you bought the car.
  • My new co-worker, whom my friend gave a ride, used to crochet bikinis.

Prepositional Complement

The fifth grammatical function that relative pronouns perform is the prepositional complement. A prepositional complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows a preposition and completes the meaning of the prepositional phrase. Consider, for example, the following sentences:

  1. Are you going to the party?
  2. I baked a cake for the party.
  3. Are you going to the party for which I  baked cake?

In the third sentence, the adjective clause is for which I baked a cake. The relative pronoun which replaces the noun phrase the party, which is the prepositional complement of the preposition for.

The five relative pronouns that can function as the prepositional complement of an adjective clause are whom, which, Ø, and informally that and who. Other examples of relative pronouns functioning as prepositional complements include the following:

  • The man to whom you sold a coat wants a scarf as well.
  • The raise for which you bargained will show up on your next paycheck.
  • The business Ø you sent the request to hates solicitations for money.
  • The teacher that you talked to is a real jerk.
  • The woman who you asked about is my great aunt.

Note that a relative pronoun functioning as a prepositional complement can separate from the preposition, which is discussed in more detail in “With or Without a Complement: Ending Sentences with Prepositions.”

Determinative

The sixth grammatical function that relative pronouns perform is the determinative. Determinatives provide information such as familiarity, location, quantity, and number. Consider, for example, the following sentences:

  1. The neighbor works nights at the library.
  2. My mother watches the neighbor’s baby.
  3. The neighbor whose baby my mother watches works nights at the library.

In the first sentence, the adjective clause is whose baby my mother watches. The relative pronoun whose replaces the noun phrase the neighbor’s, which functions as a determinative.

The relative pronoun that can function as the determinative in an adjective clause is whose. Other examples of relative pronouns functioning as possessive determiners include the following:

  • The cat whose kitten you adopted won the lottery.
  • My favorite book is the one whose author stole an elephant.
  • Twelve angry men whose mothers disliked soap own a shampoo company.

Adjunct Adverbial

The seventh grammatical function that relative pronouns perform is the adjunct adverbial. An adjunct adverbial is a word, phrase, or clause that modifies an entire clause by providing additional information about time, place, manner, condition, purpose, reason, result, and concession. Consider, for example, the following sentences:

  1. I lived in a small town as a child.
  2. Exciting events never happen in the small town.
  3. Exciting events never happen in the small town where I lived as a child.

In the third sentence, the adjective clause is where I lived as a child. The relative pronoun where replaces the noun phrase a/the small town, which functions as an adjunct adverbial.

The three relative pronouns that can function as the direct object of an adjective clause are when, where, and why. Other examples of relative pronouns functioning as adverbials include the following:

  • The time when you ate a dozen pickles always makes me laugh.
  • The store where you bought the flowers went out of business yesterday.
  • The reason why you are late seems unrealistic.

Relative pronouns that function as adverbials are also referred to as relative adverbs.

References

Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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