How To Correctly Use Relative Pronouns

by on January 14th, 2013

Pronoun-agreement is a concept that we see very often on GMAT Sentence Correction. Pronouns must have clear antecedents, meaning they can only refer to one noun in the sentence, and they must agree with their antecedents in number.

Relative pronouns are special pronouns often used to link a dependent clause back to the main independent clause in a sentence. Relative pronouns include “that,” “who,” “whom,” “which,” “where,” “when,” and “why.” Luckily, you will not t need to identify them by name, but there are two rules that you should remember to help you use relative pronouns correctly.

Rule #1: You can only use which and that to refer to inanimate objects, never people!

Which” is set apart from the rest of a sentence with a comma when it is used to introduce a dependent clause. “That” is used within the body of the sentence, and does not require a comma. It would be incorrect to use either word to refer to a person. For example, this sentence is incorrect: “Her friend Elizabeth, which is very smart, studied hard.”

Let’s look at how these words affect the meaning of a sentence. In general, a restrictive clause (using that) is needed for information that is vital to the meaning of the sentence. Let’s look at two examples:

I dislike tests that require lots of studying.

I dislike tests, which require lots of studying.

The first sentence is restrictive. The meaning is that I don’t like a specific kind of test, the kind that require lots of studying. The meaning of the second sentence (non-restrictive) is that I dislike ALL tests.

Rule #2: Only use who and whom to refer to people.

“Who” is a subjective case pronoun and can only be utilized to replace people. “Whom” is the objective case, and also refers to people. For example:

To whom did she speak?

The man who was giving the speech was President Lincoln. (In this sentence, “who” is replacing the subject.).

When to use “who” and “whom”?

To figure out which pronoun is needed, rephrase the sentence as a question.

Deepak, (who or whom?) loves Sentence Correction, scored near-perfect on the GMAT Verbal section!

Ask yourself: Who or whom scored near-perfect? The answer: Deepak. Deepak is the subject so we must use the pronoun “who.” If we’d answered the question with an objective pronoun, then whom would have been correct replacement.

With (who or whom?) do you like to study Geometry?

Since this sentence is already phrased a question, all we have to do is give a logical answer: “With you.”

Although you can be used as both a subject and an object pronoun, we have to notice the preposition “with” that preceded it. That tells us the objective case is needed, “whom.”

Remember to watch out for tricky relative pronouns on the GMAT, and as discussed, pay attention to how the meaning of the entire sentence changes when they are adjusted.

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