Pin Me

The Syntactic Functions of Relative Pronouns in English

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 11/29/2013

Relative pronouns are a type of subordinating conjunction that introduce relative, or adjective, clauses in English grammar. In addition to functioning as subordinators, relative pronouns also perform syntactic functions.

  • slide 1 of 6

    English Relative Pronouns

    English 

    The nine relative pronouns that introduce adjective or relative clauses in English are:

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

    Syntactic functions are grammatical functions that relate to other grammatical functions within the syntax, or word order, of a sentence. For example, the grammatical function of object complement is directly related to the syntactic functions of direct object and predicate. The five syntactic functions that relative pronouns can perform in English grammar are:

    1. Subject
    2. Direct object
    3. Prepositional complement
    4. Possessive determiner
    5. Adverbial

    The following sections discuss five functions of relative pronouns and include examples to illustrate use.

  • slide 2 of 6

    Subject

    Relative pronouns first function as the subject of adjective clauses. A subject is a word, phrase, or clause that performs the action of or acts upon the verb functioning as the predicate. Take for example the following two sentences:

    • The book belongs to me.
    • The book is on the table.

    These two sentences can combine into a single sentence with the help of a relative pronoun. First, the relative pronoun that replaces the subject the book in the second sentence to form the adjective clause that is on the table. Then, the adjective clauses attaches to the noun book in the first sentence to form the sentence The book that is on the table belongs to me. The relative pronoun that still refers to the noun the book making that the subject of the adjective 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:

    • Harry Potter is the boy who lived.
    • The department has experienced problems which have delayed production.
    • The man, who is also my uncle, is a world-renowned poet.
    • The teacher punished the students that cheated on the test.
  • slide 3 of 6

    Direct Object

    Relative pronouns secondly function as the direct object of adjective clauses. A direct object is a word, phrase, or clause that that follows and receives the action of a transitive verb. Take for example the following two sentences:

    • The cupcake was poisoned.
    • The wicked queen ate the cupcake.

    These two sentences can likewise combine into a single sentence with the help of a relative pronoun. First, the relative pronoun that replaces the direct object the cupcake in the second sentence to form the clause the wicked queen ate that. Then, the relative pronoun that is fronted to the beginning of the clause to form the adjective clause that the wicked queen ate. Finally, the adjective clause attaches to the noun cupcake in the first sentence to form the sentence The cupcake that the wicked queen ate was poisoned. The relative pronoun that still refers to the noun the cupcake making that the direct object of the adjective 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 person whom the committee nominated for the prize already won last year.
    • Your son must like the little girl Ø he kicked.
    • The glitch, which Espen discovered, is only minor.
    • The baby whom her husband watches is their niece.

  • slide 4 of 6

    Prepositional Complement

    Relative pronouns thirdly function as the prepositional complement of adjective clauses. A prepositional complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows the preposition in a prepositional phrase and subsequently completes the meaning of the prepositional phrase. Take for example the following two sentences:

    • The library desperately needs new books.
    • My grandmother donated some money to the library.

    These two sentences can again combine into a single sentence with the help of a relative pronoun. First, the relative pronoun which replaces the prepositional complement the library in the second sentence to form the clause my grandmother donated some money to which. Then, the prepositional phrase to which is fronted to the beginning of the clause to form the adjective clause to which my grandmother donated some money. Finally, the adjective clause attaches to the noun library in the first sentence to form the sentence The library to which my grandmother donated some money desperately needs new books. The relative pronoun which still refers to the noun the library making which the prepositional complement of the preposition to.

    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:

    • Lorelei is the girl for whom the seagulls fly.
    • The product Ø the research team gave the award to was the lint-resistant towel.
    • A famous artist designed the garden that you just looked at.
    • Ginny Weasley is the witch who Harry Potter fell in love with.

    Note that relative pronouns functioning as prepositional complements can be separated from the preposition.

  • slide 5 of 6

    Possessive Determiner

    Relative pronouns fourthly function as the possessive determiner in adjective clauses. A possessive determiner is a word that indicates possession of or some other relationship to a noun phrase. Take for example the following two sentences:

    • The neighbor is a very nice old man.
    • My brother installed his fence.

    As with other adjective clauses, these two sentences can combine into a single sentence with the help of a relative pronoun. First, the relative pronoun whose replaces the possessive determiner his in the second sentence to form the clause my brother installed whose fence. Then, the direct object whose fence is fronted to the beginning of the clause to form the adjective clause whose fence my brother installed. Finally, the adjective clause attaches to the noun neighbor in the first sentence to form the sentence The neighbor whose fence my brother installed is a very nice old man. The relative pronoun whose functions as the possessive determiner in place of his.

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

    • The man whose dog she walks is her neighbor.
    • I really enjoy the author whose books were just published.
    • Mary is the woman whose children play with mine.
  • slide 6 of 6

    Adverbial

    Relative pronouns fifthly function as the adverbial in adjective clauses. An adverbial is a word, phrase, or clause that modifies an entire clause by providing additional information about condition, concession, manner, reason, result, place, or time. Take for example the following two sentences:

    • The candles are at the store.
    • The store also sells party supplies.

    These two sentences can similarly combine into a single sentence with the help of a relative pronoun. First, the relative pronoun where replaces the adverbial at the store in the first sentence to form the clause the candles are where. Then, the adverbial where is fronted to the beginning of the clause to form the adjective clause where the candles are. Finally, the adjective clause attaches to the noun store in the second sentence to form the sentence The store where the candles are also sells party supplies. The relative pronoun where still refers to the adverbial at the store making where the adverbial in the adjective clause.

    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 reason why you handed in your homework late sounds like a lie.
    • Do you remember the time when we ate an entire pie in one sitting?
    • The hotel where we stayed on vacation had lovely rooms.

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