relative pronoun

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The relative pronoun (also: Relativ [um], related pronoun ) is a word that introduces a relative clause and thus marks this type of sentence. At the same time, as a pronoun, it takes on the function of a noun group, i.e. it serves as a subject or object in a relative clause. Among the introductory elements of relative clauses, a distinction must be made between relative pronouns and relative adverbs , since only pronouns for the noun-typical features case , number , gender are inflected.

Relative pronouns are just one of several possible strategies for forming relative clauses. Relative pronouns are common in European languages, but overall they are a rather exotic phenomenon when compared to other languages ​​(by far most languages ​​use uninitiated relative clauses ).

German language

Forms of relative pronouns

That, that, that

The inflection of this relative pronoun largely agrees with that of the definite article and only differs from its forms in the genitive and in the ending -en in the plural of the dative.

Inflection of the relative pronoun de +
case Mask Neut Fem Pl
Nom of the the the the
Acc the the the the
Date the the of the those
gene whose whose whose, who whose, who

Formulated by the grammarians of the 19th century rule that the genitive plural of the relative pronoun only their is, while the genitive plural of the demonstrative depending on the function thereof or those loud, has not caught on and is now regarded as having been overcome; the two variants are freely interchangeable:

"He had some spells, which he could not quite remember."
"He had some spells that he couldn't quite remember."

The relative pronoun is one of the few cases in German grammar in which a distinction is made between the dative ( der ) and the genitive ( their ) in the feminine. Otherwise this only happens with the personal pronoun ( her; hers ).


Which, which, which can also be used as a relative pronoun - but not in the genitive .

Inflection of the relative pronoun welch +
case Mask Neut Fem Pl
Nom which one which one Which Which
Acc which which one Which Which
Date which one which one which one which

These pronouns are used in particular to avoid repetitions of words through the coincidence of the, die, das with an identical article or second-order relative clauses.


"The man, the tram ran after ... → The man who ran after the tram ..."
"The woman of the dog belongs ... → The woman who owns the dog ..."
"The child, which was looking for the toy ... → The child, which was looking for the toys ..."

This form is found almost exclusively in the written language ; it hardly occurs in the spoken language . Sometimes which, which, which are called stylistically unattractive. In Swiss High German , the relative connection by means of which is comparatively popular.

Who, what

The interrogative pronouns who and what are also used as relative pronouns.

case Anim Neut
Nom who What
Acc whom What
Date whom ( what )
gene whose; (outdated :) wes whose; (outdated :) wes

Who and what appear in free relative clauses :

"Anyone [= the one who ] still has questions should get in touch."
"I buy what [= what ] I lack after work."
"Everyone should get what they need."
"Abundance of the heart is full of goeth mouth speaks." ( Martin Luther )
"I say this to whoever I want."
"I ask who I want."

What is also related to pronouns and substantiated adjectives with neutral gender:

"She only saw what she wanted to see."
"That's all what I can offer you."
"This is the most beautiful thing (or that ) I've ever experienced."

What also relates to a whole higher-level sentence :

"We took the whole day off, which we would not have been allowed to do."

In colloquial language , something also occurs in positions that require this in standard language :

"The child, what has been injured while playing."

Syntax of relative pronouns

The relative pronoun introduces a relative clause and bears the characteristics of the number and gender of the noun it refers to. The case of the relative pronoun, however, depends on its grammatical function in the relative clause.


"The man to whom I still owe money sent me a letter yesterday."

In this sentence is

  • dem = a relative pronoun
  • Mann = the word in the main clause to which the relative pronoun refers
  • to which I still owe money = the relative clause

The dating form the appears because the verb owe in a relative clause dating to its completion may be requested; the characteristics “masculine, singular” of the form dem are due to the fact that the incorporated noun man has these characteristics.

Differentiation between relative pronouns and conjunctions in German

In older language levels, as well as in today's regional varieties of German, there are also relative clause conjunctions that accompany or replace a relative pronoun. They often look superficially like pronouns or adverbs. They differ most clearly from pronouns in that their form is immutable (like what is in the second example below).

In Alemannic dialects and regional colloquial language, relative clauses are introduced with where , for example in Swabian or, as here, in Swiss German :

  • "D Lidia Egger is em Güürps sini long-term private secretary, where fasch as knows as ire Scheff." ( Viktor Schobinger )

This use of wo is not an adverb, but a conjunction (see under relative adverb # Differentiation from the relative clause conjunction wo ).

In other dialects, e.g. B. Viennese , the otherwise pronominal form what appears as an unchangeable word in the same relative function:

  • "I sweat under my hat, whatever I wear, whether it's nice or raining." ( Wolfgang Ambros )

The sequence of the what indicates that two different positions with an introductory function are available in the relative clause. In German grammar they are differentiated as "Vorfeld" and then "left bracket", in linguistics also as "specifier" and, after that, "complementer" of the subordinate clause (for details see Complementizer # Empty Complementer ). In addition to the lack of adaptation to the gender of the reference word, this second position of what is also an indication of the status as a conjunction.

The older German knows so traditionally as Nota relationis is called. It is also not a pronoun:

  • "If they, so sing or kiss, know more than the Tiefgelahrten." ( Novalis )


The Latin knows qui "of which" quicumque "anyone; whoever ”and quisquis “ everyone who; whoever". As in German, the relative pronouns are inflected, but also in the plural.

Inflection of the Latin relative pronouns
Number: Singular Plural
case Mask Neut Fem Mask Neut Fem
Nom qui quod quae qui quae
gene cuius quorum quarum
Date cui quibus
Acc quem quod quam quos quae quas
Oj quo qua quibus

English language

Forms of relative pronouns

In English, the following forms are used as relative pronouns:

Relative pronouns in English
subject object Possessive
person who who (m) whose
Thing which which whose / of which

There are also the relative pronouns who- / which- / what (so) ever . After all, that can be used primarily for things too . There is no clear opinion in the literature about the status of that as to whether it is a relative pronoun or not: while some linguists, and especially traditional grammars, classify that as relative pronouns or relative particles, other linguists, especially from the generative school, consider that possibly as a complementizer or conjunction .

When using relative pronouns in the English language , a distinction must be made between necessary and non-necessary relative clauses ( defining vs. non-defining relative clauses ).

Necessary relative clauses

Necessary relative clauses (also called determining or restrictive relative clauses) are relative clauses that contain information that is indispensable for understanding the higher-order clause. Necessary relative clauses are not separated from the main clause by a comma or a pause in speaking. All forms are available as relative pronouns, including that .

If the relative pronoun represents a subject , then stands for persons who and for things that or which:

  • The man who lives next door is very nice.
  • This is the bag which / that I just bought.

In constructions with superlatives, that is also used in relation to people:

  • She was the best cook that ever lived in our town.

If an object is represented, the relative pronoun is often omitted ( contact clause ):

  • I cannot do my duty without the woman (whom) I love. ( Edward VIII. )
  • Today I've finally received the letter (that / which) I had been expecting for weeks.

Unnecessary or supplementary relative clauses

Unnecessary relative clauses (also called supplementary relative clauses) are relative clauses that contain explanatory, unnecessary information. They are separated from the main clause by a comma and a pause. A relative pronoun must always be used to introduce a non-necessary relative clause; the formation of a contact set is not possible. All pronouns except that are available as relative pronouns .

  • My mother, who is a very intelligent woman, is interested in English literature.
  • My car, which always breaks down after a few miles, is now in a garage for repairs.


  • Duden . The grammar. Edited by the Duden editorial team. 8th, revised edition. Dudenverlag, Mannheim / Zurich 2009 (Duden Volume 4).
  • Adolf Lamprecht: grammar of the English language . 9th edition. Cornelsen-Velhagen & Klasing, Berlin 1989, ISBN 3-464-00644-1 .

Web links

Wiktionary: relative pronouns  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Viveka Velupillai: An introduction to linguistic typology. John Benjamnins, Amsterdam 2012. p. 139.
  2. Duden. The grammar. Edited by the Duden editorial team. 8th, revised edition. Dudenverlag, Mannheim / Zurich 2009 (Duden Volume 4), item 376. The older rule is still represented in: Duden. Correct and good German. Edited by the Duden editorial team. 4th, revised and expanded edition. Dudenverlag, Mannheim / Leipzig / Vienna / Zurich 1997 (Duden Volume 9), p. 618.
  3. J. Alan Pfeffer: The relative pronouns of and which in spoken and written. In: Die Klassenspraxis / Teaching German, Jg. 6 (2), 1973, pp. 90–97. At
  4. See for example relative pronouns, interrogative pronouns, interrogative articles : which on Canoonet .
  5. ^ Hans Bickel , Christoph Landolt : Swiss High German. Dictionary of the standard language in German-speaking Switzerland. 2nd, completely revised and expanded edition, published by the Swiss Association for the German Language. Dudenverlag, Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-411-70418-7 , p. 105; see. also Cosmas II , a linguistic text corpus of the Institute for German Language .
  6. Cf. Schweizerisches Idiotikon , Vol. 15, Col. 1 ff., Article ( digitized version , especially meaning B.2, Col. 9 ff.).
  7. ^ Lamprecht, Adolf .: Grammar of the English language . 9th edition. Cornelsen-Velhagen & Klasing, Berlin 1989, ISBN 3-464-00644-1 , p. 169-173 .
  8. ^ Lamprecht, Adolf .: Grammar of the English language . 9th edition. Cornelsen-Velhagen & Klasing, Berlin 1989, ISBN 3-464-00644-1 , p. 173 .
  9. Bernard Comrie: Relative Clauses. Structure and typology on the periphery of standard English . In: Peter Collins, David Lee (eds.): The clause in English: in honor of Rodney Huddleston. Amsterdam: John Benjamin. Pp. 81-91
  10. ^ Lamprecht, Adolf .: Grammar of the English language . 9th edition. Cornelsen-Velhagen & Klasing, Berlin 1989, ISBN 3-464-00644-1 , p. 169-177 .