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Pronouns usually replace nouns or noun phrases. There are a few fuzzy examples where it's not as clear cut as that (e.g. "my" which refers to me but acts like a determiner, and "mine" which refers to both me and something else).

How are relative pronouns like that and which pronouns? What noun or noun phrase do they replace? If they're not strictly speaking pronouns, what would be a better description for them?

Examples from Wiktionary:

  • The CPR course that she took really came in handy.
  • The house that he lived in was old and dilapidated.
  • We've met some problems which are very difficult to handle.

I'm not talking about other clearly pronominal uses such as:

  • Which is which?
  • That is that!
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  • 1
    Preliminary point: "my" and "mine" are both genitive pronouns functioning in NP structure; the former as Determiner, the latter as Head. Relative pronouns like "which", "who", "whom" typically have a nominal as antecedent, from which they derive their interpretation, so in that respect they can broadly be seen as replacing a noun. Note that "that" is not strictly speaking a pronoun but a subordinator.
    – BillJ
    Jul 10, 2019 at 6:41
  • @BillJ It's not the antecedent which determines whether it's a pronoun or not, it's the gap that it correlates with in the relative clause itself. Jul 10, 2019 at 15:28
  • @Araucaria That won't work because not all relative clauses have gaps. The relativized element (or gap if there is one) derives its interpretation from the antecedent which is almost always a nominal.
    – BillJ
    Jul 10, 2019 at 15:40
  • @BillJ The OED terms 'our' as A a pronoun (the genitive of 'us') and B an adjective - which indicates possession.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 10, 2019 at 16:54
  • @NigelJ "our" is semantically a pronoun and grammatically a determiner.
    – CJ Dennis
    Jul 10, 2019 at 21:03

2 Answers 2

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It's a fairly common viewpoint that the "that" used to introduce relative clauses is not in fact a pronoun.

Which is like a pronoun in the following way. Just as they in the pair of sentences "We've met some problems. They are very difficult to handle" can be seen as replacing a noun phrase like "those problems", the word which in "We've met some problems which are very difficult to handle" can be seen as standing for a noun phrase like "those problems". Of course, you couldn't use the actual noun phrase "those problems" in the same position, but the pronoun which is understood to mean something along those lines.

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  • It's not the antecedent which determines whether it's a pronoun or not, it's the syntactic function of the gap that it correlates within the relative clause itself. Jul 10, 2019 at 15:29
  • 1
    Take for example, the place where we met versus the place which sells food. Jul 10, 2019 at 15:30
  • Or, Sally ate my chocolates, which annoyed me Jul 10, 2019 at 15:35
  • H&P call that a subordinator, not a relativiser, btw. Jul 10, 2019 at 15:35
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In the main sentence, the whole subordinate clause acts as an adjective phrase. These kind of subordinate clauses are usually called “relative clauses”, but sometimes also “adjective clauses” for this reason.

  • “that she took” replaces “taken” in The taken CPR course really came in handy.
  • “that he lived in” replaces “inhabited” in The inhabited house was old and dilapidated.
  • “which are very difficult” replaces “hard” in We've met some hard problems.

Inside the relative clause, the relative pronoun replaces its antecedent, which is typically a noun phrase or a noun.

  • “that” replaces “the CPR course” in She took the CPR course.
  • “that” replaces “the house” in He lived in the house.
  • “which” replaces “Some problems” in Some problems are difficult to handle.

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