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Oxford Living Dictionaries defines 'relative pronoun' as follows:

(Originally) a pronoun which refers to an antecedent, as a demonstrative or personal pronoun; (now) specifically a pronoun which combines the function of a personal or demonstrative pronoun with that of a conjunction, subordinating one sentence or clause to another (e.g. who, which, that).

It's not just dictionaries that think of 'relative pronoun' as functioning as a conjunction as well as a pronoun; many grammars do the same as well.

But how much truth is there to the claim that a relative pronoun functions as a conjunction? (Note that I'm not asking here if a relative pronoun can also be classified as a conjunction, which @JohnLawler said it can't in his answer to this question titled "A relative adverb or a conjunction or both?").

At first blush, this claim sounds logical, for a relative pronoun indeed can come at the beginning of a relative clause as follows:

She was a remarkable woman [who dedicated her life to research].

But if that who can be thought of as functioning as a conjunction merely because it comes at the beginning of a clause, then what about this who?

I forgot [who I was talking to].

Here, the who is an interrogative pronoun and also comes at the beginning of a clause. But I've never heard anyone claim that an interrogative pronoun can function as a conjunction merely because it comes at the beginning of a clause.

  • Something coming at the start of a clause is certainly not reason enough to call it a conjunction. – Jason Bassford Nov 12 '18 at 8:17
  • @JasonBassford Of course not. But other than that, what would be the reason for claiming that a relative pronoun has the function of a conjunction? – JK2 Nov 12 '18 at 15:02
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    Words can fulfil multiples roles and belong to different parts of speech at different times. – Aeon Akechi Nov 14 '18 at 23:51
  • In my answer cited in the question, I didn't say that relative wh-words don't have the same function as conjunctions, just that that doesn't make them conjunctions. The reason dictionaries say things like what you cite is that they don't do grammar; they do lexicon. And they don't think their readers are very smart, or know any grammar, so they use primary-school terms only. Naturally this doesn't explain much. – John Lawler Nov 15 '18 at 3:24
  • @JohnLawler (1) Where in your answer did you say that relative wh-words do have the same function as conjunctions? Are you referring to this statement of yours in that answer: "the wh-words that have adverbial meanings...are indeed used to introduce clauses"? (2) If so, that answer of yours essentially agrees with the quoted definition of the Oxford dictionary. Then, why are you downplaying the cited definition when you actually agree with it, unless you have changed your mind since your 2014 answer, which I doubt you have? – JK2 Nov 15 '18 at 4:46

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