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The internet is indeed a tangled web, and since anyone can write anything, there is a lot of conflicting information about what is and isn’t a relative pronoun. We all agree that who, whom, that, and which are relative pronouns. Some explanations list only these four, while others also include what, where, when, and whose. Oh, and whoever/whomever (and perhaps more?).

A pronoun is a word that substitutes for or refers to a noun that is already understood based on the context in a discourse.

My confusion with whose is due to my understanding of possessive adjectives (like my, your, his, her, and so forth) and possessive pronouns (like mine, yours, theirs, and so forth).

Since possessive adjectives are not considered pronouns (right?), then I feel as though whose shouldn’t be considered a true relative pronoun. Maybe I’m overthinking it, though.

Example

  • They’re the ones whose car we borrowed.
    (They’re the ones. We borrowed their car.)

In this sentence, whose refers to their (a possessive adjective), but I suppose it can also be said to refer to they or them, so it can still function as a relative pronoun?

In the end, what is the complete list of relative pronouns, and should whose be on it?

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    As usual, this is a question about terminology, and you must understand that linguistic terminology is not governed by the ISO. Partly because everybody learns their own language, which varies from everybody else's; and partly because every linguist uses their own terminology. Mine is on record, and you can find others. There are arguments that that is not strictly a relative pronoun, and that where, when, why, how, whence, whither, and whether are relative sometimes, but not pronouns. Etc. You don't need a list; you need an explanation. Apr 22, 2022 at 23:02
  • What makes something a true relative pronoun? What makes something a false relative pronoun?
    – tchrist
    Apr 22, 2022 at 23:45
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    You need to take a peek in a quality modern grammar textbook. Consider this example I know the people [whose house she's renting]. We can represent the clause as "she's renting 'whose' house", where "whose" is understood as "people", a noun. We understand that she's renting some people's house and that I know those people. So why shouldn't "whose" be called a relative pronoun in that example?
    – BillJ
    Apr 23, 2022 at 18:31

3 Answers 3

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OK, there is no such thing as a "true" relative pronoun. Categories like this are not set by god or law, nor discovered by science. They're descriptions, and they don't describe everything.

The phrase relative pronoun refers to pronouns that occur with relative clauses. Not just any pronoun, but special pronouns that are, um ... relative to relative clauses. And, in English, certainly there are some. But they're busy words, and don't all relate only to relative clauses. So, what's a relative clause? No relative clauses, no relative pronouns, after all.

A relative clause is a clause -- that is, a simple sentence, with a subject and a verb, and maybe lots of other stuff -- that modifies a noun phrase. That makes it an "adjective phrase" in some grammars, but I don't like that term. It's not the only kind of clause that modifies noun phrases, but it is the most common, and therefore it's got the most confusing grammar.

Relative clauses come after the head noun of the clause they modify; this noun is called the relative clause's Antecedent (from Latin meaning 'coming before'). Relative clauses are distinguished from other types by having some coreference to the antecedent noun phrase. The relative pronoun is what substitutes for that reference; but sometimes the antecedent isn't a person or a thing, so it isn't a pronoun.

  • the man [who Bill pointed out to me]
  • the drink [which I bought at the bar]
  • the time [when the clock stopped]
  • the room [where she shot him]

In all of these, that can be used instead of the wh-words. And in all but the last one, the relative word (pronoun or not) can be deleted:

  • the man [Bill pointed out to me]
  • the drink [I bought at the bar]
  • the time [the clock stopped]

but not

  • *the room [she shot him]

And then there's how and why. Both are severely restricted in relatives: why can only modify the antecedent reason, and how can't appear at all as a relative word, though it can be deleted after the word way, manner, and a few others. That may be used instead, in both cases.

  • the reason [why he did it] (but not purpose, intent, or any other noun)

  • the reason [that he did it]

  • the reason [he did it]

  • the way [that he did it]

  • the way [he did it] (but not *the way how he did it)

If you want to call that a relative pronoun, go right ahead; it can apply to anything, just about, certainly to nouns. It's really the remains of a complementizer that used to occur in tensed clauses (and still does with certain verbs -- He thinks that shaving is silly), but got stuck with some of the jobs in relative clauses, which have a lot of complexities. Whether it's part of the true, the blushful list of relative pronouns is not for me to say.

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    Relative pronouns are so called because they occur in relative clauses, and relative clauses are so called because they are related by their form to an antecedent. In other words they contain within their structure an anaphoric element whose interpretation is determined by the antecedent. Incidentally, relative clauses modify nominals, not full NPs.
    – BillJ
    Apr 23, 2022 at 18:13
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Is "whose" a true relative pronoun?

Yes, it is. "Whose" reflects what is left of the old grammatical cases:

Nominative: he who

Accusative him whom

Genitive his whose

Dative [to/for] him whom

Most of the pupils lost their books in the flood but James', whose had been on top of the cupboard, were safe.

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  • Yes, but it's relative because it occurs in relative clauses where it has a nominal for an antecedent.
    – BillJ
    Apr 23, 2022 at 18:39
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A pronoun is a word that substitutes for or refers to a noun that is already understood based on the context in a discourse.

Right. We use whose in place of a possessive noun, e.g. John's, so it's a pronoun:
John is the man. + His (= John's) jacket is blue. = John is the man whose jacket is blue.

Since possessive adjectives are not considered pronouns (right?)

Wrong. Possessive adjectives/determiners are pronouns:

My, your, his, her, its, our and their are pronouns, because they stand for possessive noun phrases: my younger brother means ‘the speaker’s younger brother’; their plans means for example 'those people’s plans’ or 'the children's plans’. They are used at the beginning of noun phrases, and function as determiners…Note that mine, yours, etc are also pronouns (of a different kind), but they are not used as determiners.

📘 Michael Swan, Practical English Usage fourth edition, entry 143.1

what is the complete list of relative pronouns

While grammarians don't have a universal list, certain elements appear commonly:

The relative pronouns are who, whom, whose, which, and thatWhen, where, [and why] can be used as relative adverbs: I remember very well the region where I was born.

📘 Bas Aarts et al., The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, p. 359

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