Relative Pronouns – Formality Scales

Who uses whom?

Last week’s post was all about Adjective Clauses (aka Relative Clauses)—the two types and their punctuation rules. This week, I thought I’d focus on another aspect of adjective clauses which can cause confusion for students: choosing which pronoun to use. Sometimes there are four or five choices for one sentence! When students are presented with all the relative pronoun options, they can get a bit overwhelmed. I’ve found that presenting them on a scale of formality really helps to clear things up. For simplicity, the scales show restrictive adjective clauses where the relative pronoun is the object of the clause—that way, students can see the most options. Notes on changes for non-restrictive clauses and subject pronouns are included below the scales.

People:

Who, that, or no pronoun are all very common when the relative pronoun is the object of the adjective clause (i.e., there is another noun or pronoun—“I” in the examples above—following the relative pronoun). I usually suggest using who or that when writing and dropping the pronoun when speaking.

Point out to students that when the relative pronoun is the subject of the adjective clause, there are only two options: who or that, with who being slightly more formal than that. We cannot drop the pronoun when it’s the subject of the clause. (E.g., The man who called me was a telemarketer / The man that called me was a telemarketer are the only correct options).

Should we teach students to use whom? It’s very formal and not so common these days, but I believe we should at least point it out to students, making sure to tell them that it’s rarely used in speaking or writing (unless the writing is quite formal) but that they may come across it while reading. Don’t forget to mention that whom is only possible when it’s the object pronoun in the adjective clause—it’s never possible as the subject pronoun. (E.g., we can say The person whom I talked to at the meeting finally called me but we can’t say The person whom called me was a telemarketer. There must be another noun or pronoun following whom.)

Things:

For restrictive clauses like the examples above (i.e., no commas are used), which is more formal and not often used in American English. In British English, it’s still fairly common. In American English, that is more acceptable for restrictive clauses, while which is the better choice for non-restrictive clauses (e.g., The Hobbit, which was a great book, was made into a movie.) See Restrictive & Non-Restrictive Adjective Clauses for more information. For restrictive clauses, I usually suggest using that when writing and dropping the pronoun when speaking.

Point out to students that when the relative pronoun is the subject of the adjective clause, there are only two options: which or that, with which being more formal than that (and not commonly used in restrictive clauses. We cannot drop the pronoun when it’s the subject of the clause. (E.g., The book that was on sale was recommended to me is the best option in American English).

Places:

For other adjective clauses involving places, times, etc., putting the preposition before the pronoun is very formal. As with whom, I’d tell my students not to do that (except possibly in very formal writing) but I’d mention that they might see it when reading. The other pronouns are all commonly used. It’s hard to classify where and when on the formality scale—they can be used for both formal and informal situations. For these cases, I usually suggest using where or that when writing and dropping the pronoun when speaking. Note that these pronouns are always the object of the clause, never the subject.

Practice:

Try ESL Library’s related lessons:

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