“Who” as a Relative Pronoun

Summary

Use who as a relative pronoun to link a description to the person it describes.

Examples
  • That’s the nurse who saved my life.
    The pronoun “who” connects the relative clause (“who saved my life”) to the noun it describes (“the nurse”).
  • Lulu, who is famous for her cupcakes, also bakes muffins.

In general, use which instead of who to refer to animals, unless they have names.

Examples
  • The domestic cat, which/who is a small carnivorous mammal, has been friendly to humans since 7500 BCE.
  • She goes swimming with her dog Lava, which/who loves the ocean.

Don’t use commas when who presents information essential to identify the person being referred to (a restrictive clause), but do use commas when who introduces an extra, optional description (a nonrestrictive clause).

Examples
  • Restrictive: Students who need assistance may apply online.
  • Nonrestrictive: Dr. Dash, who reviewed the report before it was published, is a forensic pathologist.

Who can replace whom, the object form of the pronoun, in everyday usage. Whom is more formal.

Example
  • Acceptable: The whistleblower, who I interviewed in person, prefers to remain anonymous.
    Formal: The whistleblower, whom I interviewed in person, prefers to remain anonymous.

The pronoun who

Use the pronoun who to introduce a clause that describes people previously mentioned in the sentence.

Examples
  • Is that the woman who won an award?
  • Minerva Dash, who wrote this book, has won an award.
  • The man who made this meme must be a mathematician.
  • People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
  • My friend Rita, who is an explorer, has discovered a new continent.

Such clauses, which describe noun phrases, are called relative clauses.

Example
  • I know the woman who wrote this book.
    The relative clause (“who wrote this book”) describes the noun phrase (“the woman”).

Relative pronouns like who connect relative clauses to the nouns they describe.

Example
  • I know the woman + the woman wrote this book = I know the woman who wrote this book.
    “Who” acts as a pronoun by referring to the noun.

Who is also used as a pronoun in questions (Who are you?). In this article, we discuss how to use who as a relative pronoun.

Who in relative clauses

Use who to introduce a relative clause that describes a person.

Examples
  • We interviewed Farley, who now lives in a cave in the Himalayas.
    “Who” introduces information about a person.
  • Dr. Minerva Dash, who is the head of the institute, is a molecular biologist.
  • I’d like to speak with the person who sent me this email.
  • The actor who won the award is British.
  • The person who discovered fire remains unknown.
  • People who like cheese love pizza.
  • Socrates, who was born in the fifth century BCE, was one of the world’s first moral philosophers.

Also use who to refer to animals with names.

Examples
  • My dog Lava, who likes cheese, loves pizza.
  • Here is a picture of my cat Hobbes, who has the cutest little paws.
  • My neighbor’s cat, who visits me every afternoon, loves to snuggle.
Caution

Use who for people or for animals with names. To refer to groups, animals without names, or things, use which or that instead.

Examples
  • My team, who/which won the cup last year, is going to win again this year.
  • The bear who/that was in the news last month has been released back into the wild.
  • Honesty, who/which is the best policy, can land you in trouble.

Use of commas

Don’t use a comma before who when it presents information essential to meaning (a restrictive clause). Such a description is necessary to identify the person being referred to.

Examples
  • The girl who ate all the cookies also ate the muffins.
    Who ate the muffins? The girl who ate all the cookies. Since this information is essential, it is not enclosed in commas.
  • Lulu is a woman who loves chocolate.
  • Do you know someone who can fix this?

But use commas when who presents a description not necessary to identify the person being referred to (a nonrestrictive clause). The commas indicate that the information is parenthetical and can be omitted without loss of basic meaning.

Examples
  • My sister, who loves traveling as much as me, is in Fiji.
    We already know who is being talked about: “my sister.” “Who” simply presents additional, interesting information not essential to meaning. The who clause is therefore enclosed in commas.
  • The poet Emily Dickinson, who lived and wrote in the nineteenth century, is famous for her dashes.
  • Lulu, who loves chocolate, hates ice-cream.
  • I sat beside Minerva Dash, who recently won an Oscar.
Caution

Remember to “close your commas”: place a comma both before and after a who clause that appears in the middle of a sentence.

Example
  • Incorrect: Nesbit, who believes UFOs are real has moved to Nevada.
    Correct: Nesbit, who believes UFOs are real, has moved to Nevada.

Omitting “who is” in a sentence

“Who is” can often be omitted from relative clauses without loss of meaning.

Examples
  • Anita, (who is) an experienced manager, will know what to do.
  • My friend, (who is) an influencer on social media, makes videos for a living.

Such omission is possible when the relative clause can be reduced to an appositive, adjective, or participle phrase, each of which performs the same function as a relative clause—which is to describe a noun.

Examples
  • Nesbit, (who is) a friend of mine who’s a brilliant programmer, plays video games for a living.
  • They have sent my friend, (who is) an innocent man, to jail!
  • My grandmother, (who was) known for her terrible temper, was a celebrated poet.

Don’t omit who when it is followed by a verb other than the be verb (is, are, was, were).

Examples
  • Correct: People who like adventure enjoy new experiences.
    Incorrect:People like adventure enjoy new experiences.
  • Correct: Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pseudonym “George Eliot,” was one of the greatest writers of the Victorian era.
    Incorrect: Mary Ann Evans, wrote under the pseudonym “George Eliot,” was one of the greatest writers of the Victorian era.

Who vs. that

The relative pronoun that can be used in place of who to refer to people. In such sentences, that introduces a restrictive or essential clause and is used without commas.

Examples
  • She is a woman who/that knows what she wants.
  • People who/that read science fiction also enjoy fantasy.
  • It could be somebody who/that wanted to contact you anonymously.
  • Each of the students who/that wrote the exam has passed.

It is sometimes thought that that cannot be used to refer to people but only to things. In fact, as can be seen from the examples below, that is often used in place of who to refer to people, especially after an indefinite pronoun like someone or somebody.

Examples
  • A man that hath no virtue in himself, ever envieth virtue in others.
    Francis Bacon, “Of Envy,” Essays (1597)
  • I grant I am a woman, but, withal / A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife.
    William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (1599)
  • I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die.
    Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
  • Very nice sort of place, Oxford, I should think, for people that like that sort of place.
    George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903)
  • I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride.
    William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930)
Tip

Who is preferred over that to refer to people in formal usage.

Example
  • Acceptable: Patients that reported symptoms were included in the trial.
    Formal: Patients who reported symptoms were included in the trial.

That cannot replace who in nonrestrictive clauses, which are enclosed in commas and provide an optional description. (That is generally used only in restrictive clauses.)

Example
  • Incorrect: Rita, that loves skiing, is saving for a trip to the Andes.
    Correct: Rita, who loves skiing, is saving for a trip to the Andes.

Who vs. which

Use who to refer to people, and which for things.

Examples
  • Maya, which/who loves adventure, plans to travel the world.
  • The movie, which/who is over three hours long, is nothing like the book.

Also use who to refer to animals with a proper name, but use which otherwise.

Examples
  • My cat Hobbes, which/who loves to snuggle, sleeps twenty hours a day.
  • but
  • The duck-billed platypus, which/who is found in eastern Australia, is a mammal that lays eggs.

Who vs. whom

Whom is the object form of the pronoun who: whom serves as the object, while who functions as the subject in a sentence.

Examples
  • Maya, who writes poetry, is a published author.
    who = subject of verb “writes”
  • Maya, whom you met at my party, is a published author.
    whom = object of the verb “met”
  • My grandmother, to whom this letter is addressed, died forty years ago.
    whom = complement of the preposition “to”
Tip

To decide whether a pronoun is the subject or object of a verb, turn the relative clause around and try using a personal pronoun like he/she/they or him/her/them. If he/she/they works, you are referring to the subject. If him/her/them works instead, you have the object.

Examples
  • Maya, who writes poetry, is a published author.
    She writes poetry,” not “Her writes poetry.” What we have is the subject. Use who.
  • Maya, whom you met at my party, is a published author.
    “You met her at the party,” not “You met she.” What we have is the object. Use whom in formal writing.

In everyday usage, who can replace whom in a sentence.

Examples
  • Maya, who you met at the party, is a published author.
  • My grandmother, who this letter is addressed to, died forty years ago.
Caution

Who can always replace whom, but whom cannot replace who as the subject.

Example
  • Incorrect: Maya, whom writes poetry, is a published author.
    “Whom” cannot act as the subject of a clause.
    Correct: Maya, who writes poetry, is a published author.

Who’s vs. whose

Although who’s and whose are pronounced the same way, they cannot be used interchangeably. Who’s is a contraction of “who is” or “who has,” while whose is the possessive form of who.

Examples
  • My new neighbor, who’s/whose a writer, has a cat.
  • My new neighbor, who’s/whose just moved in next door, is a writer.
  • My new neighbor, who’s/whose cat visits me every afternoon, is a writer.
Tip

To correctly use who’s and whose, try using “who is” or “who has” instead in the sentence. If one of these works, use who’s; otherwise, use whose.

Examples from literature

The following examples from published writing show how who is used as a relative pronoun to describe people.

Examples
  • They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.
    Edgar Allan Poe, “Eleonora,” The Gift (1842)
  • But Phileas Fogg, who was not traveling, but only describing a circumference, took no pains to inquire into these subjects.
    Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days (1872)
  • I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
    Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
  • The woman who survives intact and happy must be at once tender and tough.
    Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993)
  • Nevertheless, blood is thicker than water, as anyone knows who has tasted both.
    Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (2000)

Usage guide

Use who as a pronoun to introduce a relative clause that describes people. Don’t enclose this clause in commas if who presents information essential to identify the person being described. Who can always replace whom in a sentence, except in formal usage. Similarly, both who and that can be used for people, but who is preferred in formal usage. Finally, who’s and whose cannot be used interchangeably: who’s is a contraction of “who is” or “who has,” while whose is a possessive.

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Did You Know?

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