Author Topic: It’s time to equip yourself better in handling the relative pronouns  (Read 7139 times)

Joe Carillo

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If you sometimes get mixed up when using the relative pronouns, you are definitely not alone in that predicament. I used to have the same problem myself, and over the past nine years or so, I would often hear from readers of my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times about their discomfort when having to use relative pronouns. And as I was to find out later as a magazine copyeditor, the misuse of relative pronouns was also endemic even among professional feature writers. From this experience, I found it difficult not to conclude that relative pronoun usage is an aspect of English grammar that wasn’t—and perhaps still isn’t—being taught and learned adequately in our school system.   

It was for this reason that I wrote a three-part essay, “Getting to know the relative clauses better,” for  my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2008. I’m sure that this extended discussion of the subject will make Forum members better equipped in handling relative pronouns and complex sentences, so I am running it in the Forum in three installments starting this week. (March 26, 2011)     

Getting to know the relative clauses better - 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 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 practically the opposite way American English does.

So, I think it’s high time we did a full-dress review once more 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)

We’ll continue this discussion in next week’s edition of the Forum.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, September 20, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: March 28, 2011, 09:07:53 PM by Joe Carillo »