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How to Teach Relative Pronouns (With Examples)

Learning how to teach relative pronouns is essential for any English teacher focused on improving their students’ grammatical precision and expressive capabilities.

These crucial grammatical elements, which introduce clauses that provide more detail about a noun, are vital for crafting elaborate and clear sentences, enhancing effective communication.

Educators can successfully illustrate the functions and importance of relative pronouns by employing clear explanations, pertinent examples, and dynamic classroom activities.

A solid understanding of how and when to use relative pronouns allows students to form more accurate sentences and boosts their overall ability to communicate in English.

View all of our  Pronoun Worksheets

What are Relative Pronouns?

A relative pronoun introduces a relative clause in a sentence. The primary relative pronouns in English include which, that, who, and whom. It’s important to note that these words can also serve other grammatical functions and are not strictly confined to the role of relative pronouns.

A relative clause provides additional information about a noun or noun phrase that precedes it, known as the antecedent. This clause can either specify and clarify the antecedent in a restrictive clause or add supplementary details in a nonrestrictive clause.

Positioned after the antecedent, the relative clause uses the relative pronoun to represent and refer back to that noun or noun phrase, elaborating on the subject in question.

Refer to the table below for clarity:

Pronouns Usage in sentences Sample sentence
Which Refers to things, typically used in nonrestrictive clauses.
The novel (antecedent), which was published last year (relative clause), has already won several awards.
That Refers to things, commonly used in restrictive clauses.
The smartphone (antecedent) that has the longest battery life  (relative clause) will be my next purchase.
Who Refers to people, employed as a subject pronoun.
The writer (antecedent) who inspired a generation (relative clause) is giving a lecture tonight.
Whom Refers to people, used as an object pronoun.
The actor (antecedent) whom the director praised (relative clause) accepted the award graciously.

Teaching Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns are key elements in English grammar used to connect clauses or phrases to nouns or pronouns, adding information or detailing the subject mentioned earlier in the sentence. These pronouns can make sentences more fluid and concise by combining information that would otherwise require multiple sentences.

Usage of Which and That

That and which are usually used for animals or things, not people. Whether you use that or which depends on the type of clause in the sentence.

Restrictive clauses, which provide essential information, use that. If you remove a restrictive clause, the sentence’s meaning changes significantly.

Examples of restrictive clauses (“that”):

how to teach relative pronouns

Nonrestrictive clauses add extra details that, if left out, wouldn’t change the overall meaning of the sentence. These clauses use which and are set off by commas.

Examples of nonrestrictive clauses (“which”):

how to teach relative pronouns

Usage of Who and Whom

The difference between “who” and “whom” isn’t often noted in everyday speech, where “who” is commonly used for both. However, in formal and academic writing, it’s important to use them correctly.

  • Who is used as the subject of a clause, referring to the person doing the action.
  • Whom is used as the object of a clause, referring to the person receiving the action.

Examples with “who” and “whom”:

how to teach relative pronouns

Usage of Who and That

“Who” and “whom” are used specifically for people and sometimes for animals, but never for inanimate objects.

That,” on the other hand, is mainly used for objects but is also commonly used for people, especially in general statements like “parents that engage with their kids” or about specific individuals like “it was Steph that said it.” It’s important to note that “which” is never used to refer to people.

Many style guides consider using “that” incorrectly for people, although this usage has been common for a long time. For clear and proper writing, it’s best to use “who” or “whom” for people and “that” or “which” for objects.

how to teach relative pronouns

Ambiguous antecedents

Relative pronouns can create confusion if they are not placed immediately after the noun or noun phrase they are meant to refer to. When multiple nouns precede the relative clause, ensure that the relative pronoun directly follows the intended referent to avoid ambiguity.

Consider the example below, where it’s unclear whether it’s the cake or the sister who won the award until the sentence is restructured for clarity:

Omission of relative pronouns

In certain instances, the relative pronoun can be omitted from the sentence without altering its meaning. This is possible under two specific conditions:

  1. The relative clause it introduces is restrictive (i.e., it is not separated by commas).
  2. The pronoun serves as the object of the clause, not the subject.

This typically means that “whom” can often be left out, and “that” can frequently be omitted as well; “which” and “who” generally cannot be omitted.

Examples: Optional Relative Pronouns

  • I appreciate the help that you offered.
  • The book that she lent me was fascinating.

Examples: Mandatory Relative Pronouns

  • This is the artist who painted the mural.
  • The laptop, which I just bought, is already malfunctioning.

Omitting the relative pronoun, where applicable, tends to make the sentence sound less formal. Usually, it does not lead to ambiguity, but in formal writing, it’s often better to retain the pronoun.

An exception where you might leave out the pronoun in formal contexts is when keeping it would result in the repetition of a word:

Important note: If you omit the relative pronoun when it’s the object of a preposition, you must move the preposition to the end of the clause. For instance, “the director to whom I spoke” becomes “the director I spoke to.” While some may object to sentences ending with a preposition, this construction is generally accepted.

Additional relative pronouns

Some words function as relative pronouns in specific contexts, though they may not always follow traditional patterns or are infrequently used in this capacity.

What
“What” can act as a relative pronoun, but it uniquely introduces what’s known as a free relative clause or fused relative clause, which does not continue from a preceding noun phrase but starts a clause independently:

Whichever, Whoever, Whomever, Whatever
Compounds of “which,” “who,” “whom,” and “what” with “-ever” form the compound relative pronouns: whichever, whoever, whomever, and whatever.

These are used in free relative clauses, indicating a lack of specificity about the identity of the thing or person referred to, and make general statements:

  • Whoever finishes the report first can leave early.
  • Feel free to use whatever resources you need.

Whose
While “whose” is traditionally the possessive form of “who,” it can be a relative pronoun indicating ownership.

More commonly, it functions well as a relative determiner, modifying a subsequent noun rather than standing awkwardly on its own:

When and Where
When” and “where” are sometimes classified as relative pronouns in specific usages, though they are typically considered relative adverbs.

This classification is due to their role in replacing adverbial phrases rather than nouns:

  • The year when the revolution happened was tumultuous.
  • The café where we met is closing down.

Relative and interrogative pronouns

Many relative pronouns double as interrogative pronouns, which are used to formulate questions.

Their functions in questions mirror their uses in relative clauses: “what” and “which” inquire about objects or things, “who” and “whom” about people, and “whose” pertains to ownership.

Examples: Interrogative Pronouns

  • What caused the power outage?
  • Whom should I contact if I need help with the project?
  • Whose book is left on the table?

Important note: “That” is not employed as an interrogative pronoun, but it is used as a demonstrative pronoun or a conjunction, showcasing its versatility in sentence structure.

Exercises for teaching Relative Pronouns

Exercise 1: Fill in the blanks

Instructions: Fill in the blanks with the appropriate relative pronouns from the list provided.
List of Relative Pronouns: who, whom, whose, which, that
1. The painter ______ painted this mural is famous.
2. I have a friend ______ car broke down yesterday.
3. The students ______ passed the test were very happy.
4. She has a necklace ______ is made of gold.
5. The man to ______ I spoke yesterday gave me some useful advice.
6. There is a lady on the bus ______ always smiles at me.
7. That’s the cat ______ I adopted last week.
8. He bought the house ______ roof is red.
9. The book ______ you recommended was out of stock.
10. The company ______ products we use has gone eco-friendly.
Answer key (for teachers)
1. The painter who painted this mural is famous.
2. I have a friend whose car broke down yesterday.
3. The students who passed the test were very happy.
4. She has a necklace that is made of gold.
5. The man to whom I spoke yesterday gave me some useful advice.
6. There is a lady on the bus who always smiles at me.
7. That’s the cat that I adopted last week.
8. He bought the house whose roof is red.
9. The book that you recommended was out of stock.
10. The company whose products we use has gone eco-friendly.

Exercise 2: Matching type

Instructions: Match the sentences in column A with the correct relative pronouns in column B. Write the letter of the correct answer beside each number.
Column A: Sentences Column B: Relative Pronouns
1. The author ______ book I read last night is incredible.
A. who
2. The machine ______ we use to make coffee is broken.
3. She is someone ______ you can really trust.
B. whose
4. The house ______ they bought has a huge garden.
5. The teacher ______ helped me understand calculus was Mr. Bryant.
C. which
6. The woman ______ I met at the party works in publishing.
7. The car ______ engine malfunctioned was brand new.
D. that
8. The children ______ play in the park seem happy.
9. The phones ______ are left on the table belong to my classmates.
E. whom
10. The paintings ______ were stolen have been recovered.
Answer key (for teachers)
1. B – The author whose book I read last night is incredible.
2. C – The machine which we use to make coffee is broken.
3. A – She is someone who you can really trust.
4. D – The house that they bought has a huge garden.
5. A – The teacher who helped me understand calculus was Mr. Bryant.
6. E – The woman whom I met at the party works in publishing.
7. B – The car whose engine malfunctioned was brand new.
8. A – The children who play in the park seem happy.
9. D – The phones that are left on the table belong to my classmates.
10. D – The paintings that were stolen have been recovered.

Final Thoughts on How to Teach Relative Pronouns to Your Students

Learning how to teach relative pronouns effectively involves providing clear explanations, practical examples, and engaging activities that reinforce these concepts. By incorporating real-life scenarios and interactive exercises into lessons, educators can help students understand the usage of relative pronouns, which connect clauses and provide additional details about nouns.

Mastering relative pronouns enhances students’ grammatical precision and communication skills. Ultimately, a solid grasp of relative pronouns is crucial for students to construct accurate and clear sentences, boosting their confidence in navigating the complexities of the English language.

Embracing platforms like EnglishLearningByPro, which offers readily available and adaptable materials, allows teachers to personalize their teaching strategies according to each student’s unique needs. The ultimate goal is to empower students to easily master the use of verbs, enhancing their communication skills in the English language.

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John Bart
Author: John Bart

I am the co-owner of englishlearningbypro.com, a community built specifically for English teachers around the world trying to make a living teaching English. I have lived in Brazil for four years and had previously taught private English classes for three years. I am passionate about helping others, and making English teaching and learning easier.

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