Author Topic: Learning to use the relative pronouns confidently  (Read 13563 times)

Joe Carillo

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Learning to use the relative pronouns confidently
« on: October 16, 2009, 11:06:09 PM »
Part I

One of the most common mistakes I encounter in my work as copyeditor and grammar consultant is the misuse of the relative pronouns. Not a few of the manuscripts I edit often embarrassingly fumble or stumble when using “who,” “which,” or “that” to relate a qualifying clause to an antecedent noun in the sentence. And I must admit that early in my writing career, I used to get pretty mixed up with the relative pronouns myself. Simply on gut feel, I would indiscriminately use “which” and “that” to announce my relative clauses, so I can imagine that my grammar then was probably correct no more than 50 percent of the time.

I can see now that I got into this predicament largely because in my youth, I had read a lot of novels by British authors. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy them or profit from them in terms of getting a better grasp of the English language, but as I was to find out to my consternation many years later, British English uses “which” and “that” in almost the opposite way American English does.

So I think it’s high time we did a full-dress review of the relative pronouns. We’ll do it specifically in the American English standard, which is the standard we are using in the Philippines.

The relative pronouns are, of course, “who,” “which,” “that,” “whom,” “whoever,” “whomever,” “whatever,” and “whichever.” Each of them serves to relate a dependent or subordinate clause to an antecedent noun in a sentence, which can either be the subject or object of that dependent clause. And taken together, the relative pronoun and the dependent clause it introduces constitute what is called a relative clause.

Let’s examine this sentence that has a relative clause attached to it: “People who complain loudest about a problem often don’t do anything to solve it.” Here, the relative clause is “who complain loudest about a problem” and “who” is the relative pronoun that relates it to the antecedent noun “people,” which is the subject of the sentence. What the relative clause does here is to specify the particular people being written about; functionally, it provides additional information about the antecedent noun so the reader can understand the context of the statement better.

Now, in English, the choice of relative pronoun depends on two things: (1) whether the additional information being given is essential or not essential to the understanding of the idea or context of the main clause; and (2) whether the antecedent noun is a person or an animal or inanimate object. Either way, however, the relative pronoun can function as a subject or an object or can take its possessive form.

At any rate, a relative clause that provides essential information to the main clause is what is known as a defining or restrictive relative clause, as in the example we looked at earlier: “People who complain loudest about a problem often don’t do anything to solve it.” Here, the relative clause “who complain loudest about a problem” can’t be taken out from the sentence, for to do so will seriously change the meaning of what’s being said. Indeed, if we drop that relative clause, we would end up with “People don’t do anything to solve [a problem]”—a sentence that unreasonably and illogically generalizes on human behavior.

On the other hand, when the information in the relative clause is not essential to the idea or context of the main clause, we have what is called a nondefining or nonrestrictive relative clause. In such cases, a comma is normally needed to separate the relative clause from the main clause, as in this sentence: “The company decided to fire its legal counsel, who bungled the court filings in a crucial corporate dispute.” Here, the main clause can stand even without the relative clause. (September 20, 2008)

Part II

In the previous essay, we discussed the difference between the two kinds of relative clauses: a defining or restrictive relative clause provides essential information to the main clause of a sentence, while a nondefining or nonrestrictive relative clause provides information not essential to the idea or context of the main clause. We then saw that when the antecedent noun is a person, a defining relative clause is inseparably linked to the main clause by the relative pronoun “who,” as in “Young people who spend too much time playing computer games tend to have very short attention spans.” A nondefining relative clause is similarly introduced by the relative pronoun “who,” but it must always be set apart from the main clause by a pair of commas, as in “The great Jose Rizal, who has been called ‘The Pride of the Malay Race,’ was actually of Chinese ancestry.” Those commas indicate that the main clause can stand even without the relative clause.

(Again, to get a surer feel of the difference between a defining clause and a nondefining clause, see what happens when we drop the relative clauses from each of the examples above: “Young people tend to have very short attention spans.” “The great Jose Rizal was actually of Chinese ancestry.” With the relative clause gone in the first sentence, the statement has become too overgeneralized to be true; in contrast, even without the relative clause, the second statement remains perfectly valid.)

So far, though, we have only discussed the use of relative pronouns when persons are the antecedent subjects. When the subject is an animal, a place, an inanimate object, or a concept, we can no longer use the relative pronoun “who” to link the relative clause to its antecedent subject. Instead, we use either the relative pronouns “that” or “which” depending on the kind of relative clause we are using in the sentence.

In American English specifically, we use “that” to link a defining or restrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject, as in the following examples: “The Siamese cat that our father found on a street gutter a year ago became the family’s favorite pet.” “The treehouse that the Sanchez brothers built during their teens was gone.” “The great idea that was propounded by the neophyte legislator got mangled due to too much politicking.” In these sentences, the relative clause is crucial to understanding the idea or context of the main clause; dropping the relative clause can seriously alter the import or significantly detract from the intended meaning: “The Siamese cat became the family’s favorite pet.” “The treehouse was gone.” “The great idea got mangled due to too much politicking.”

On the other hand, we use the relative pronoun “which” to link a nondefining or nonrestrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject, as in the following examples: “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was written by the British historian Edward Gibbon in the 18th century, has been hailed as one the greatest historical works produced by Western man.” “A subspecies of the chevrotain, which is also known as the mouse deer, is indigenous to Palawan and nearby islands.” The pair of enclosing commas is mandatory in such constructions; it sets the relative clause apart from the main clause and indicates that the relative clause is not essential to the idea of the main clause.

Indeed, when the relative clauses are dropped from such sentences, we will find that the main clauses can very well stand by themselves: “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has been hailed as one the greatest historical works produced by Western man.” “A subspecies of the chevrotain is indigenous to Palawan and nearby islands.”

In the next essay, we will discuss how the American English usage of the relative clauses differs from that of British English, and how we can streamline sentence constructions that use relative clauses. (September 27, 2008)

Part III

A rather sticky point about the relative pronouns “that” and “which” is that their American English usage differs in one important respect from British English usage. Indeed, one who gets heavily exposed to books and periodicals in both English standards—as I had been in my younger days—would experience some difficulty in choosing between “that” and “which” to link relative clauses.

This is because as we saw in the previous column, American English specifically prescribes using “that” to link a defining or restrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject, and restricts the use of “which” to linking a non¬defining or nonrestrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject. In contrast, British English uses “which” to link both defining and nondefining clauses in such situations: a defining “which” when no comma or pair of commas separates it from the relative clause, and a nondefining “which” when a comma or pair of commas (as the case may be) separates it from the relative clause.

In British publications, therefore, we will normally come across “which” introducing defining relative clauses, as in this sentence: “Nevertheless, [Charles Darwin’s] is the version of natural selection which has since been supported by a century and a half of observation and which is now accepted by virtually every scientist on earth.” (“How Darwin won the evolution race” by Robin McKie, The Observer, June 22, 2008). In contrast, American publications normally would use “that” for the two relative clauses in that sentence: “Nevertheless, [Charles Darwin’s] is the version of natural selection that has since been supported by a century and a half of observation and that is now accepted by virtually every scientist on earth.”

From my recent readings, though, I get the feeling that some British writers—probably due to the influence of American media—are no longer entirely averse to using “that” to introduce defining relative clauses. Consider this passage: “Heather McGregor, a City headhunter, echoes this analysis with the arch observation that ‘the UK bank that has come out of the current crisis strongest is the one that has most aggressively promoted women into positions of senior management: Lloyds TSB.’” (“What caused the crunch? Men and testosterone” by Matthew Syed, The Times-UK, Sept. 30, 2008). A thoroughly British writer would have used “which” to introduce the two defining clauses within the quoted material in that sentence.

Now, as I mentioned in my previous essay, there’s a way to avoid having to make a choice between “which” and “that” when linking restrictive relative clauses to their antecedent subject: to drop the relative pronoun altogether. See how this works in the following sentence: “The charming little beach that we used to visit in summer is now a crowded, high-end resort.” With “that” dropped: “The charming little beach we used to visit in summer is now a crowded, high-end resort.” Another example: “The emergency financial maneuver that was proposed by the chairman was rejected by the company’s stockholders.” With “that” dropped: “The emergency financial maneuver proposed by the chairman was rejected by the company’s stockholders.”

The two “that”-less sentences above are, of course, a form of elliptical construction, which we will recall is a streamlining procedure that makes a sentence more concise and easier to enunciate by omitting words that are obviously understood. This particular construction, though, is advisable only for informal writing and spoken English, and doesn’t work in all cases. In particular, we can’t omit “that” when the relative clause begins with an adverbial phrase, as in this sentence: “The speaker insisted that ultimately the people would suffer from the rejection of the emergency economic measure.”

See what happens when we drop “that”: “The speaker insisted ultimately the people would suffer from the rejection of the emergency economic measure.” The result is a squinting modifier, where the adverb “ultimately” could be understood as modifying either the verb before it or the entire phrase that follows it. (October 4, 2008)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, September 20 and 27, 2008, October 4, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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maxsims

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Re: Learning to use the relative pronouns confidently
« Reply #1 on: October 17, 2009, 07:22:14 AM »
"...A thoroughly British writer would have used “which” to introduce the two defining clauses within the quoted material in that sentence..."

Egad!

A thoroughly British writer would not be caught dead doing that!

 ;D

Joe Carillo

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Re: Learning to use the relative pronouns confidently
« Reply #2 on: October 17, 2009, 01:30:18 PM »
I would insist that that thoroughly British writer would have likely chosen to use “which’s” rather than “that’s” for those two defining clauses. 

Levity aside, let’s isolate the original passage in question to clarify my point (the italics for all those “that’s” are mine):

“Heather McGregor, a City headhunter, echoes this analysis with the arch observation that ‘the UK bank that has come out of the current crisis strongest is the one that has most aggressively promoted women into positions of senior management: Lloyds TSB.’”

Note that the sentence uses three “that’s” in all. The first “that”—the one that comes right after the word “observation”—doesn’t count from my reckoning, for it’s actually not being used as a relative pronoun but as a subordinating conjunction to introduce the entire coordinate clause “‘the UK bank that has come out of the current crisis strongest is the one that has most aggressively promoted women into positions of senior management: Lloyds TSB.’” It is the two “that’s” within that coordinate clause that I was referring to. You will note that the first introduces the defining clause “has come out of the current crisis strongest” and the second, the defining clause “has most aggressively promoted women into positions of senior management: Lloyds TSB.”

When I said that a thoroughly British writer would have used “which” to introduce the two defining clauses within the quoted material in that sentence, I meant that that writer would most likely replace those “that’s” with “which’s” in keeping with the British style that I explained earlier, such that the sentence would read as follows:

“Heather McGregor, a City headhunter, echoes this analysis with the arch observation that ‘the UK bank which has come out of the current crisis strongest is the one which has most aggressively promoted women into positions of senior management: Lloyds TSB.’”

I must acknowledge that this may not have become clear enough because at that point of my essay, I had already used up the word quota for my column and could no longer run the sentence again to reflect the change of the two “that’s” to “which’s.” Otherwise, I stand on what I said about what that thoroughly British writer would have done with those relative pronouns. ;)

maxsims

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Re: Learning to use the relative pronouns confidently
« Reply #3 on: October 17, 2009, 03:55:57 PM »
You must be reading the trashy publications!
 :D