H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The
King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.
Chapter II. Syntax
e. Miscellaneous uses and abuses of the relative.
- A RELATIVE clause is sometimes coordinated
with an independent sentence; such coordination is perhaps always
awkward, but is not always incorrect. The question arises chiefly
when the two have a common subject expressed only in the relative
clause; for when the subject is expressed in both, the independent
sentence may be taken to be coordinate, not with the relative
clause, but with the main sentence to which the relative clause is
attached, as in the following instance:
To begin with, he had left no message, which in itself I felt to
be a suspicious circumstance, and (I) was at my wits' end how to
account plausibly for his departure.
Retain 'I', and 'I was' may be coordinate with 'he had left': remove
it, and the coordination is necessarily between 'I was' and 'I
felt'. In our next examples the writers are committed:
These beatitudes are just laws which we have been neglecting, and
have been receiving in ourselves the consequences that were
The idea which mankind most commonly conceive of proportion, is
the suitableness of means to certain ends, and, where this is not
the question, very seldom trouble themselves about the effect of
different measures of things.—Burke.
Fictitious capital, a name of extreme inaccuracy, which too many
persons are in the habit of using, from the hasty assumption that
what is not real must necessarily be fictitious, and are more led
away by a jingling antithesis of words than an accurate perception
of ideas.—H. D. Macleod.
The first two of these are wrongly coordinated: the third, a
curiosity in other respects, is in this respect right. The reason is
that in the first two we have a defining, in the third a
non-defining relative clause. A defining clause is grammatically
equivalent to an adjective ('violated laws', 'the popular idea'),
and can be coordinated only with another word or phrase performing
the same function; now the phrase 'we have been receiving', not
being attached to the antecedent by means of a relative, expressed
or understood, is not equivalent to an adjective. We could have had
'and (which we) have been properly punished for neglecting',
or we could have had the 'and' sentence in an adverbial form, 'with
the fitting result'; but coordination between the two as they stand
The Burke sentence is a worse offender. Coordination of this kind is
not often attempted when the antecedent of the relative is subject
of the main sentence; and when it is attempted, the two coordinates
must of course not be separated by the predicate. If we had had 'the
idea which mankind most commonly conceive of proportion, and very
seldom trouble themselves about anything further', the coordination
would have been similar to the other, and could have been rectified
in the same way ('and beyond which they very seldom...', or 'to the
exclusion of any other considerations'). But this alteration we
cannot make; for there is a further and an essential difference. The
Daily Telegraph writer evidently meant his second
coordinate to do the work of a defining clause; he has merely failed
to make the necessary connexion, which we supply, as above, either
by turning the words into a second defining clause, or by embodying
them, adverbially, in the first. Burke's intention is different, and
would not be represented by our proposed alteration in the order.
All that a defining clause can do in his sentence is to tell us what
idea is going to be the subject. If we were to give a brief
paraphrase of the whole, italicizing the words that represent the
second coordinate, it would be, not 'mankind's sole idea of
proportion is the suitableness...', but 'mankind's idea of
proportion is the suitableness..., and very little else'; for
the question answered is, not 'what is mankind's sole idea?' but
'what is mankind's idea?' In other words, the second coordinate
belongs in intention not, like the relative clause, to the subject,
but to the predicate; to rectify it, we must either make it part of
the predicate ('and is not concerned with...'), or, by inserting
'they', coordinate it with the main sentence. Obvious as the latter
correction is, the sentence repays close examination, as
illustrating the incoherence of thought that may underlie what seems
a very trifling grammatical slip.
But in our third example, the relative clause is non-defining; it is
grammatically equivalent to, and could be replaced by, an
independent sentence: 'Many persons are in the habit of using it'.
There is nothing grammatically wrong in this type of coordination;
it is objectionable only because it seems to promise what it does
not fulfil. When the common subject of two coordinates is expressed
only with the first, it is natural to assume that all words
preceding it are also to be applied to both coordinates; and the
violation of this principle, though not of course ungrammatical, is
often felt to be undesirable in other than relative clauses.
- In the sentences considered above, the antecedent of the relative
did not belong to the second coordinate, and could not have been
represented in it without the material alterations there proposed.
But it may also happen that the antecedent, as in the following
examples, belongs equally to both coordinates, being represented in
the first by a relative, in the second by some other pronoun.
There were two or three whose accuracy was more scrupulous,
their judgement more uniformly sober and cautious.—Bryce.
He renewed the old proposal, which Pizarro treated as a
piece of contemptible shuffling, and curtly rejected it.
Which she has it in her option either to do or to let it
In the pair of parallel coordinates from Mr. Bryce, insert the
suppressed 'was', and it becomes clear that 'whose', not 'their', is
the right pronoun.
In the 'Pizarro' sentence, 'it' is not only superfluous, but
disturbing to the reader, who assumes that 'which' is common to both
clauses, and on reaching 'it' has to glance back and check the
sentence. Here, as often, the pronoun seems to be added to restore
an ill-balanced sentence; but that can be done in several other
ways. In the Richardson sentence also the 'it' should go.
More commonly, the repetition of the antecedent in another form
results from the superstitious avoidance of a preposition at the
A demand by Norway for political separation, to which Sweden will
not assent, but will not go to war to prevent it.Times.
'To (which)' is not common to both coordinates: accordingly the
writer finds it necessary to give 'it' in the second. But, even if
we respect our superstition, and exclude 'which Sweden will not
assent to, but will not go to war to prevent', we have still the two
possibilities of (1) complete relative coordination, 'to..., but
which...'; (2) subordination, 'though she will not go to war to
In our next example, Lord Rosebery, again for fear of a preposition
at the end, falls into the trap clumsily avoided by the Times
That promised land for which he was to prepare, but scarcely to
So perhaps Bagehot, though his verb may be conceive of:
English trade is carried on upon borrowed capital to an extent of
which few foreigners have an idea, and none of our ancestors could
- When the relative is the subject of both coordinates, or the
object of both, its repetition in the second is a matter of choice.
But to omit the relative when it is in a different case from the
first is a gross, though not uncommon, blunder. The following are
A league which their posterity for many ages kept so inviolably,
and proved so advantageous for both the kingdoms of France and
Questions which we either do not put to ourselves, or are turned
aside with traditional replies.—Mark Rutherford.
It is just conceivable that in the last of these the subject of
'are' is 'we': if so, the sentence is to be referred to (i) above
(wrong coordination of an independent sentence with a defining
It is not easy to see why the relative more than other words should
be mishandled in this way; few would write (but see p. 61, s. f.)
'This league we kept and has proved advantageous'.
The condensed antecedent-relative 'what' is only an apparent
exception to this universal rule. In the sentence 'What I hold is
mine', 'what' is only object to 'hold', not subject to 'is'; the
subject to 'is' is the whole noun-clause 'what I hold'. Sentences of
this type, so far from being exceptions, often give a double
illustration of the rule, and leave a double possibility of error.
For just as a single 'what' cannot stand in different relations to
two coordinate verbs in its clause, so a single noun-clause cannot
stand in different relations to two coordinate main verbs. We can
say 'What I have and hold', where 'what' is object to both verbs,
and 'what is mine and has been fairly earned by me', where it is
subject to both; but we cannot say 'what I have and has been fairly
earned by me'. Similarly, we can say 'What I have is mine and shall
remain mine', where the noun-clause 'what I have' is subject to both
verbs, and 'What I have I mean to keep, and will surrender to no
man', where it is object to both; but not 'What I have is mine, and
I will surrender to no man'. Of the various ways of avoiding this
error (subordination, adaptation of verbs, insertion of a pronoun,
relative or otherwise), that chosen by Miss Brontë below is
perhaps the least convenient. Her sentence is, however, correct;
that from the Spectator is not.
Not mere empty ideas, but what were once realities, and that I
long have thought decayed.—C. Brontë.
Whatever we possessed in 1867 the British Empire possesses now,
and is part of the Dominion of Canada.—Spectator.
'Things that were once realities, and that I long have thought
decayed'; a pair of defining clauses.
The condensed 'what' must of course be distinguished from the 'what'
of indirect questions, which is not relative but interrogative. In
the following example, confusion of the two leads to an improper
What sums he made can only be conjectured, but must have been
In the first sentence, 'what' is an interrogative, in the second, a
condensed antecedent-relative, standing for 'the sums that'. It is
the sums that were enormous: it is the answer to the question 'What
sums did he make?' that can only be conjectured. The mistake is
possible only because 'can' and 'must' do not reveal their number:
'can' is singular, 'must' plural.
The differentiation between the two whats and their
equivalents is not, indeed, complete: just as the condensed
antecedent-relative resembles in form, though not in treatment, the
unresolved interrogative, so the interrogative, by resolution into
'the ... that (which)', not only resembles, but is grammatically
identified with, the uncondensed relative and antecedent. The
resolution is, no doubt, convenient: it should be noticed, however,
that the verbs with which alone it can be employed (verbs that may
denote either perception of a fact or other kinds of perception) are
precisely those with which ambiguity may result. 'I know the house
(that) you mean': it may (antecedent and relative) or may not
(resolved interrogative) follow that I have ever seen it. 'We must
first discover the scoundrel who did it'; antecedent and relative?
then we must secure the scoundrel's person; resolved interrogative?
then only information is needed. 'I can give a good guess at the
problem that is puzzling you': and the solution?—I know nothing of
the solution; I was resolving an interrogative.
This, however, does not affect sentences like the Macaulay one
above: for although the resolved or uncondensed forms ('the ...
which') are grammatically identified, the condensed or unresolved
forms ('what') are not.
- The omission of the relative in isolated clauses (as opposed to
coordinates) is a question not of correctness but of taste, so far
as there is any question at all. A non-defining relative can never
be omitted. The omission of a defining relative subject is often
effective in verse, but in prose is either an archaism or a
provincialism. It may, moreover, result in obscurity, as in the
second of our examples, which may possibly puzzle the reader for a
Now it would be some fresh insect won its way to a temporary fatal
new development.—H. G. Wells.
No one finds himself planted at last in so terribly foul a morass,
as he would fain stand still for ever on dry ground.—Trollope.
But when the defining relative is object, or has a preposition,
there is no limit to the omission, unless euphony is allowed to be
one. We give three instances in which the reader may or may not
agree that the relative might have been retained with advantage:
We do that in our zeal our calmer moments would be afraid to
But did you ever see anything there you had never seen before?—Bagehot.
Those ethical judgements we pass on self-regarding acts are
ordinarily little emphasized.—Spencer.
- When a defining relative has the same preposition as its
antecedent, it is not uncommon, in the written as well as in the
spoken language, to omit the preposition in the relative clause.
There is something to be said for a licence that rids us of such
cumbrous formulae as 'in the way in which', 'to the extent to
which', and the like; in writing, however, it should be used with
caution if at all.
In the first place, if the preposition is to go, the relative should
go too, or if retained should certainly be 'that', not 'which'; and
if the verb of the relative clause is the same as in the main
sentence, it should be represented by 'do', or (in a compound tense)
by its auxiliary component.
Because they found that it touched them in a way which no book in
the world could touch them.—Daily Telegraph.
The man who cleaned the slate in the manner which Sir E. Satow has
done both in Morocco and Japan might surely rank as a reflective
'In a way no other book in the world could': 'in the way (that) Sir
E. Satow has done'.
A further limitation is suggested by our next example:
The Great Powers, after producing this absolutely certain result,
are ending with what they ought to have begun,—coercion.—Spectator.
Here, of course, the relative cannot be omitted, since relative and
antecedent are one. But that is not the principal fault, as will
appear from a resolution of the antecedent-relative: 'they are
ending with the very thing (that) they ought to have begun...'. We
are now at liberty to omit our relative or retain it, as we please;
in either case, the omission of 'with' is unbearable. The reason is
that 'with' does not, like the 'in' of our former examples,
introduce a purely adverbial phrase: it is an inseparable component
of the compound verbs 'end-with' and 'begin-with', of which the
antecedent and relative are respectively the objects. Similarly, we
cannot say 'He has come to the precise conclusion (that) I thought
he would come', because we should be mutilating the verb to
'come-to'; we can, however, say 'to the conclusion (that) I thought
he would', 'come-to' being then represented by 'would'.
Finally, the omission is justifiable only when antecedent and
relative have the same preposition. Sentences like the next may pass
in conversation, but (except with the one noun way) are
intolerable in writing:
One of the greatest dangers in London is the pace that the corners
in the main streets are turned.—Times.
- The use of 'such ... who (which)', 'such ... that (defining
relative)', for 'such ... as' is sometimes an archaism, sometimes a
Till such time when we shall throw aside our earthly garment.—Daily
Only such supplies were to be made which it would be inhuman to
refuse to ships in distress.—Times.
The censorship of literature extends to such absurd prohibitions
which it did not reach even during the worst period of the
A God in such an abstract sense that, as I have pointed out
before, does not signify.—Daily Telegraph.
They would find such faith, such belief, that would be a
revelation to them.—Daily Telegraph.
Swift's plan was to offer to fulfil it on conditions so insulting
that no one with a grain of self-respect could accept.—L.