Rules, Regularity, and Relative Pronouns

The other day I was thinking about relative pronouns and how they get so much attention from usage commentators, and I decided I should write a post about them. I was beaten to the punch by Stan Carey, but that’s okay, because I think I’m going to take it in a somewhat different direction. (And anyway, great minds think alike, right? But maybe you should read his post first, along with my previous post on who and that, if you haven’t already.)

I’m not just talking about that and which but also who, whom, and whose, which is technically a relative possessive adjective. Judging by how often relative pronouns are talked about, you’d assume that most English speakers can’t get them right, even though they’re among the most common words in the language. In fact, in my own research for my thesis, I’ve found that they’re among the most frequent corrections made by copy editors.

So what gives? Why are they so hard for English speakers to get right? The distinctions are pretty clear-cut and can be found in a great many usage and writing handbooks. Some commentators even judgementally declare, “There’s a useful distinction here, and it’s lazy or perverse to pretend otherwise.” But is it really useful, and is it really lazy and perverse to disagree? Or is it perverse to try to inflict a bunch of arbitrary distinctions on speakers and writers?

And arbitrary they are. Many commentators act as if the proposed distinctions between all these words would make things tidier and more regular, but in fact it makes the whole system much more complicated. On the one hand, we have the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction between that and which. On the other hand, we have the animate/inanimate (or human/nonhuman, if you want to be really strict) distinction between who and that/which. And on the other other hand, there’s the subject/object distinction between who and whom. But there’s no subject/object distinction with that or which, except when it’s the object of a preposition—then you have to use which, unless the preposition is stranded, in which case you can use that. And on the final hand, some people have proscribed whose as an inanimate or nonhuman relative possessive adjective, recommending constructions with of which instead, though this rule isn’t as popular, or at least not as frequently talked about, as the others. (How many hands is that? I’ve lost count.)

Simple, right? To make it all a little clear, I’ve even put it into a nice little table.

The proposed relative pronoun system

This is, in a nutshell, a very lopsided and unusual system. In a comment on my who/that post, Elaine Chaika says, “No natural grammar rule would work that way. Ever.” I’m not entirely convinced of that, because languages can be surprising in the unusual distinctions they make, but I agree that it is at the least typologically unusual.

“But we have to have rules!” you say. “If we don’t, we’ll have confusion!” But we do have rules—just not the ones that are proposed and promoted. The system we really have, in absence of the prescriptions, is basically a distinction between animate who and inanimate which with that overlaying the two. Which doesn’t make distinctions by case, but who(m) does, though this distinction is moribund and has probably only been kept alive by the efforts of schoolteachers and editors.

Whom is still pretty much required when it immediately follows a preposition, but not when the preposition is stranded. Since preposition stranding is extremely common in speech and increasingly common in writing, we’re seeing less and less of whom in this position. Whose is still a little iffy with inanimate referents, as in The house whose roof blew off, but many people say this is alright. Others prefer of which, though this can be awkward: The house the roof of which blew off.

That is either animate or inanimate—only who/which make that distinction—and can be either subject or object but cannot follow a preposition or function as a possessive adjective or nonrestrictively. If the preposition is stranded, as in The man that I gave the apple to, then it’s still allowed. But there’s no possessive thats, so you have to use whose of of which. Again, it’s clearer in table form:

The natural system of relative pronouns

The linguist Jonathan Hope wrote that several distinguishing features of Standard English give it “a typologically unusual structure, while non-standard English dialects follow the path of linguistic naturalness.” He then muses on the reason for this:

One explanation for this might be that as speakers make the choices that will result in standardisation, they unconsciously tend towards more complex structures, because of their sense of the prestige and difference of formal written language. Standard English would then become a ‘deliberately’ difficult language, constructed, albeit unconsciously, from elements that go against linguistic naturalness, and which would not survive in a ‘natural’ linguistic environment.1“Rats, Bats, Sparrows and Dogs: Biology, Linguistics and the Nature of Standard English,” in The Development of Standard English, 1300–1800, ed. Laura Wright (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000), 53.

It’s always tricky territory when you speculate on people’s unconscious motivations, but I think he’s on to something. Note that while the prescriptions make for a very asymmetrical system, the system that people naturally use is moving towards a very tidy and symmetrical distribution, though there are still a couple of wrinkles that are being worked out.

But the important point is that people already follow rules—just not the ones that some prescriptivists think they should.

Notes   [ + ]

1. “Rats, Bats, Sparrows and Dogs: Biology, Linguistics and the Nature of Standard English,” in The Development of Standard English, 1300–1800, ed. Laura Wright (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000), 53.