Relative pronouns link main clauses to a type of subordinate clause known as a relative clause. They are easy to remember: wh- forms and that:
that, which, who, whose, whom, where, when, how, 0
to see the relative pronouns and the clauses they govern. Remember, main clauses can stand alone, whereas subordinate clauses don’t make sense on their own.
The plane that was empty took off.
The plane which was full landed.
The passenger who was hungry strapped herself in.
The passenger whose meal was non-vegetarian complained.
The passengers for whom flying was an everyday concern fell asleep.
The plane is flying where the sun is shining.
The loads need to be redistributed when the plane is flying empty.
We were wondering how the plane stays up.
The passengers we sat next to told us.
Pronouns (scroll down to ‘Other Types of Pronoun’)
Clauses and Sentences (scroll down to ‘Relative Clauses’)
The following extract is written by a Hawai’ian author, using a combination of Hawai’ian Creole English (known as pidgin in Hawai’i), American English and Standard English.
First read the text, then click below to see the relative pronouns and zero relative pronouns revealed:
In the text below, relative pronouns are marked in green and interrogative pronouns are marked in red. Zero relative pronouns are marked 0.
At first wuz go, den no go, den go again. My maddah wen make my faddahs take one physical last month wen we wuz planning dis trip and I guess 0 da doc toll him 0 he bettah lay off da cigs cuz my Poppa Puff used to smoke like two packs a day and now he no smoke nahting. He get couple pills 0 he gotta take too, but dey no like tell me wot ees fo’. My maddah wuz all worried if he could handles going on dis trip, but he sed 0 no mattah wot he wuz going.
My maddah da one 0 always flip-flopping. Jus like wen she drive. To moss people, one yellow light mean slow down, cuss, slow down. To my maddah, one yellow light mean stop, go-stop, ah mo beddah GO I tink so. In da end, my maddah wen decide fo’ stay home save money. Gotta tink da future she sed, plus she had fo’ watch my kid bruddah. So wuz jus me and my faddahs on dis plane ride.
Usually me and my faddahs no talk nahting. Not dat we hate each oddahs. Jus 0 we no mo’ nahting fo’ say. My maddah da one 0 get da motor mout, talking on and on to da endless power kine. My faddah sez 0 her mout only good fo’ complain, complain about how everyting so expensive nowadays – I dunno why, but only recently my maddah sez 0 cannot afford da kine Kellogs Cereal Variety Packs. Get mo’ bang fo’ your buck she sez if we buy one big box of generic, look like, but not Cheerios and so I gotta eat ‘em everyday fo’ da whole month until by da end of da first week da fake Cheerios no seem so cheery anymo’, but too bad so sad fo’ me cuz das all 0 I getting, cuz das all 0 get, and das all 0 I going get, until I finish dat big buffo bargin size box.
My faddah sez 0 da plane ride going take only like twenny-thirty minutes. And dis flight attendant stewardess-man is jus one rude dude, cuss. Ees like he tink 0 I looking him wot, so he looking me why, only I not looking him wot, I looking him, I THIRSTY WEA MY DRINK, cuss. My troat stay all dehydronated. At least I practice da kine good kine mannahsrisms at my house. Cannot be rude, cuss. Wen all my friends come ova, da first ting 0 I do is offah dem drink and someting to eat. “Ryan, Kyle, you guys like Cheerios? Now hurry up eat ‘em befo’ my maddah see.”
( Note that in Hawai’ian Creole English, when is a past-tense marker in the Verb Phrase [wen + the base form]: wen make ‘made’, wen decide ‘decided’.)
last month [wen we wuz planning dis trip]: ‘last month when we were planning this trip]’
I guess [0 da doc toll him]: ‘I guess that the doc told him’
[0 he bettah lay off da cigs]: ‘that he better lay off the cigs’
He get couple pills [0 he gotta take]: ‘He got a couple of pills that he’s got to take’
dey no like tell me [wot ees fo’]: ‘they didn’t want to tell me what it’s for’ or ‘they haven’t, like, told me what it’s for’
he sed [0 no mattah wot he wuz going] ‘he said that no matter what (happened) he was going’ – what in this context is a nominal relative pronoun
My maddah da one [0 always flip-flopping]: ‘My mother is the one who is always flip-flopping’
Jus like [wen she drive]: ‘Just like when she drives’
[Not dat we hate each oddahs]: ‘(It is) not that we hate each other’
Jus [0 we no mo’ nahting fo’ say]: ‘(It’s) just that we’ve nothing much to say’
My maddah da one [0 get da motor mout]: ‘My mother is the one who has the motor mouth’
My faddah sez [0 her mout only good fo’ complain, complain]: ‘My father says that her mouth is only good for complaining’
about [how everyting so expensive]: ‘about how everything (is) so expensive’
I dunno why: ‘I don’t know why’
my maddah sez [0 cannot afford da kine Kellogs Cereal Variety Packs]: ‘my mother says that we cannot afford those Kellogs Cereal Variety Packs’
[das all] [0 I getting]: ‘that’s all that I’m getting’
[cuz das all] [0 get]: ‘because that’s all that (we’ve) got’
and [das all] [0 I going get]: ‘and that’s all that I’m going (to) get’
My faddah sez [0 da plane ride going take only like twenny-thirty minutes]: ‘My father says that the plane ride (is) going (to) take only like twenty-thirty minutes’
Ees like he tink [0 I looking him]: ‘(It)’s like he thinks that I’m looking (at) him’
I looking him wot: ‘I’m looking at him: what!’
so he looking me why: ‘so he’s looking at me: why?’
I not looking him wot: ‘I’m not looking at him: what!’
WEA MY DRINK: ‘WHERE’S MY DRINK?’
[Wen all my friends come ova], da first ting [0 I do]: ‘When all my friends come over, the first thing that I do’
(Note: In dat big buffo bargin size box, ‘that’ is a determiner.)
Although there may have been unfamiliar grammatical and lexical material which caused you momentary processing difficulties, it’s unlikely that the relative pronouns, or zero relative pronouns, caused you much trouble. If relative pronouns are the object of the relative clause, they can be omitted, and although plenty were omitted in Tonouchi’s text, they could be omitted in those positions in Standard English too. Go back over the zero relative pronouns and see if you can omit them all in your idiolect. In many dialects (although not Standard English), relative pronouns can also be omitted when they are the subject of the relative clause, as in My maddah da one 0 always flip-flopping. Here’s the title of a song written by Kirsty MacColl and Philip Rambow:
There’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis
‘There’s a guy (who) works down the chip shop (who) swears (that) he’s Elvis’
The two whos are the subject of the following relative clause. This won’t work in all dialects, but it’s possible in Hawai’ian Creole English and London English.
Being thatful, putting in all the relative pronouns, makes a text sound more formal. Leaving them out makes it sound more like speech.
Identify the relative pronouns in the following poem. First read the text, then click below to see the relative pronouns and zero relative pronouns made explicit:
In the poem below, the relative pronouns are marked in green and zero relative pronouns are marked 0.
I’r Hen Iaith A’i Chaneuon
If the tongue spoke only the mind’s truth,
there wouldn’t be any neighbours.
– The Red Book of Hergest
When I go down to Wales for the long bank holiday
to visit my wife’s grandfather, who is teetotal,
who is a non-smoker, who does not approve
of anyone who is not teetotal and a non-smoker,
When I go down to Wales for the long, long bank holiday
with my second wife to visit her grandfather,
who deserted Methodism for The Red Flag,
who won’t hear a word against Stalin,
who despite my oft-professed socialism
secretly believes 0 I am still with the Pope’s legions,
receiving coded telegrams from the Vatican
specifying the dates, times and positions 0 I should adopt
for political activity and sexual activity,
who in his ninetieth year took against boxing,
which was the only thing 0 I could ever talk to him about,
when I visit my second wife’s surviving grandfather,
and when he listens to the football results in Welsh,
I will sometimes slip out to the pub.
I will sometimes slip out to the pub
and drink pint upon pint of that bilious whey
0 they serve there, where the muzak will invariably be
‘The Best of the Rhosllanerchrugog Male Voice Choir’
and I will get trapped by some brain donor from up the valley
who will really talk about “the language so strong and so beautiful
that has grown out of the ageless mountains,
that speech of wondrous beauty that our fathers wrought,”
who will chant to me in Welsh his epileptic verses
about Gruffudd ap Llywelyn and Daffydd ap Llywelyn,
and who will give me two solid hours of slaver
because I don’t speak Irish, and who will then bring up religion,
then I will tell him 0 I know one Irish prayer about a Welsh king
on that very subject, and I will recite for him as follows:
‘Fág uaim do eaglais ghalida
Is do chreideamh gan bonn gan bhrí,
Mar gurb é is cloch bonn dóibh
Magairle Anraoi Rí.’ ‘Beautiful,’
he will say, as they all do, ‘It sounds quite beautiful.’
1. I'r Hen Iaith A'i Chaneuon (‘To the Old Tongue and its Songs’) is the Welsh title of a poem by Walter Dowding.
2. ‘Fág uaim do eaglais ghalida
Is do chreideamh gan bonn gan bhrí,
Mar gurb é is cloch bonn dóibh
Magairle Anraoi Rí.’
This Irish verse is by Antoine Ó Reachtabhra, and translates roughly as
‘Away with your foreign religion,
And your baseless, meaningless faith,
For the only rock it is built upon
Is the bollocks of King Henry the Eighth.’
3. Ian Duhig is a Londoner of Irish ancestry.
What is the effect of the relative pronouns in the above poem? Write your answer below:
Everything that precedes the last line of the first stanza is subordinate to the main clause I will sometimes slip out to the pub. (Try placing the main clause at the beginning: ‘I will sometimes slip out to the pub / When I go down to Wales for the long bank holiday … and when he listens to the football results in Welsh’ – all the clauses are dependent on it.) The first stanza is about all the many things the Welsh grandfather is against, as a result of which the poet cannot find much in common with him, and the sixteen relative clauses before getting to the point where he can slip out to the pub demonstrate his boredom.
The second stanza is also about the poet’s boredom, this time in the pub, listening to a Welsh patriot who values the Welsh language for symbolic and sentimental reasons. The rude Irish verse doesn’t merit ‘Beautiful,’ … ‘It sounds quite beautiful’; but this is the standard response the poet receives from Celtic patriots to anything in Irish.
Relative pronouns are linking devices, linking subordinate relative clauses to main clauses. Relative pronouns are easily remembered (that and wh- forms); less easy to spot are the zero relative pronouns. They are very common, and cause a text to sound less formal.