Here we go, another grammar question.

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Here we go, another grammar question.

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mar 18, 2009, 4:36am

From the textbook: "I can't stand going to parties with lots of people I don't know very well."

And my student says, "Why not lots of people THAT I don't know very well?" (Or who. He asked about which but that definitely doesn't work.)

What's the answer? The best I could do is explain that other languages use "that" a lot more often than we do... that I'd probably say "lots of people that I don't know very well," but only because of studying Spanish and Italian, and people are always reading my writing and telling me there's too many "that"s.

Redigeret: mar 18, 2009, 5:27am

I think the answer is that English often combines clauses without the 'that' or 'who'. It's not wrong to use it, but students need to know the other option as well because it is used so often.

In this example 'that' works because it is neutral. 'Who' works because the people are people. 'Which' can be used for things, but not for people.

This is the cloth I meant to use for my new shirt.

'That' or 'which' could be inserted, not 'who'.

Wikipedia has a good article about relative clauses.

The sections about zero relative pronoun and use with preposition are about this question.

Which pronouns can be left out varies by language. In English you can only leave out a subject pronoun in direct commands. Many other languages skip them routinely. This is the way English does it.

mar 18, 2009, 10:16am

So the short answer is that your student can insert the 'that' or leave it out. Both are correct.

mar 18, 2009, 11:26am

Or insert "who" or "whom", which are also both correct. But, as MarthaJeanne said, better not insert "which", because "which" isn't usually used for people.

mar 18, 2009, 11:59am

Question: In jjwilson's post #3 s/he said, "So the short answer is that your student can insert the 'that' or leave it out." Could that be left out?

mar 18, 2009, 12:15pm

5: yes, if you insert a comma.

mar 18, 2009, 4:25pm

Oh yeah, no, I know both are correct. I was more looking for the WHY part - with any luck I'll find the answer at Wikipedia!

mar 18, 2009, 5:38pm

Wikipedia can provide decent information or sheer bunk. Beware!

mar 25, 2009, 10:09pm

It's just accepted that the "that" is implied and we all know what you mean anyway. It's an easy word to swallow; I guess people just swallowed it often enough that it became acceptable to leave it out altogether.

mar 29, 2009, 7:57pm

In the sentence you ask about, the 2 jobs of "that" (a relative pronoun) are to signal that a clause is coming and to provide an object for the verb in the clause (know). The sentence is short and clear enough that the "that" can be omitted without confusing anyone. When sentences are clear without the pronoun, we can choose to omit it. Why use more words than you need? :)

Clauses in which the relative pronouns are omitted are called "contact clauses." You don't need to insert a comma when you omit "that," but some people do (and some teachers consider such a comma to be wrong or colloquial). Usage manuals often discuss this topic under "that, omission of" or "contact clauses." I recommend the Merriam Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage if you're looking for a good one.

You may have discovered this info in wikipedia already, but I just joined the group today.

mar 29, 2009, 7:59pm

Ahem. The sentence where some people might omit "that" & insert comma was "So the short answer is that your student can insert the 'that' or leave it out" and not the sentence you were asking about.

mar 29, 2009, 11:56pm

I use "that" a lot, but someone I know who was reading something I wrote circled them all and said that it's generally not used now. I suppose things go in and out of style, linguistically as well as in other areas.

mar 30, 2009, 12:13pm

Using "that" too seldom in writing can be confusing at times. It's not ALWAYS best to leave it out and it's NOT wrong to leave it in. I'd guess the that-hating friend might be leaning a bit far the other direction.

mar 30, 2009, 12:24pm

The worst thing about the original sentence is the use of 'lots of' instead of 'many'.

mar 30, 2009, 1:53pm

#14: Noisy
'lots of' is much better than 'many' in that sentence. But that's style, not grammar.

apr 11, 2009, 1:02am

English has an optional "drop rule" for the head of a relative clause, much like Spanish has one for pronouns. "Hablo Espanol," is the correct form, notice there is no "yo." You can put it there or leave it off, many people take the option and drop it off.

"That's the girl that I love," and "That's the girl I love," are both correct, but the latter is more common stylistically because of this optional rule.

apr 12, 2009, 2:39am

I'm not sure what an optional rule might mean, but anyway Spanish is a "pro-drop" language in which a subject that can be pragmatically inferred is generally not provided; by contrast, it's unlikely that there's anything simple that can be said about the relative merits of "that" versus nothing in places such as this.

If you'd like a descriptive grammar (what is and isn't said), then get Huddleston and Pullum's A Student's Introduction to English Grammar; this is excellent as far as it goes, but it has to exclude a lot. If you're really interested and are prepared to pay for it, get their big grammar book The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. If both are beyond your means, get some other descriptive grammar book written for students of language by somebody who teaches or recently taught linguistics at a university you've heard of.

Just make sure that you avoid simplistic claptrap written by the underinformed for the gullible. As a fairly recent example of such books, I nominate Economical Writing, by Deirdre N. McCloskey: in all seriousness, McCloskey regurgitates long-debunked misunderstandings about "hopefully" and so forth.

maj 26, 2009, 7:08pm


This discusses that versus which.

aug 27, 2009, 9:51am

#4 says: Or insert "who" or "whom", which are also both correct.


I always thought "who" was a subject while "whom" was an object.


"That is the man who went to to the ball game."

"That is the man whom I know well."

By this reasoning it would have to be (in the OP),

"lots of people whom I don't know very well..."

Since "I" is the subject, doing the knowing, and the people are the things being known (object).

aug 27, 2009, 10:29am

#19: gregstevenstx "I always thought 'who' was a subject while 'whom' was an object."

Up to a point. There are fans of Latin who think that's the way it always ought to be, but English doesn't work the same way. There was a discussion of this here in Pedants' Corner (To who this may interest and whom wants to read on). Maybe you would like to revive it?

Redigeret: aug 27, 2009, 5:27pm

>19 gregstevenstx:, 20

Am I right in interpreting "fans of Latin" vs. "English doesn't work the same way" as summing up the "original" use of who/whom vs. the current formality marker use? If not, feel free to elaborate!

For the longest time, the English who/whom distinction did work along a subject/non-subject line -- which is the closest present-day English really gets to a case system à la Latin. That's the case from about 1000BC until roughly halfway through the 19thC. But even in the 18-19thC it was going out of style. I've read too few earlier works to say anything about that before that period, but the OED lists examples of early "misuse" from Tyndale's 1526 translation of the Bible, and late-16thC examples from Romeo & Juliet. So the distinction has been fuzzy for about five centuries.

Usage varies with remnants of once-grammatical elements that have lost their raison d'être, so whom in current usage is an indicator of stilted prose, an ultra-formal style marker more than anything else; that (I take it) is what jimroberts in #20 means when he says "English doesn't work the same way". Still, people are so uncertain about its "correct" usage, that they usually avoid it altogether.

Nevertheless, whatever its function, whom simply does not belong to standard, stylistically-appropriate English any more -- sad though the loss of a respectable grammatical distinction might be. It has simply become outdated.

To me, To who this may be of interest sounds perfectly natural; non-ironic to whom this may be of interest, while not necessarily incorrect, sounds hopelessly old-fashioned and overly formal, fussy even. Whom wants to read on sounds downright ungrammatical. I myself never use whom, unless I'm deliberately using overly formal language, simply because it isn't appropriate in any other style.

(I recall several posts about this topic on Language Log, this one in particular; but here's a list of more recent discussions.)

aug 27, 2009, 6:14pm

Comparing who/whom usage to Latin is a bit of disservice to its ancestry. English, as a Germanic language, had more cases than is currently the case even before its "contamination" by Latin, to say nothing of the straightjacket Latin-trained grammarians attempted to impose on this Germanic language a couple centuries ago.

aug 27, 2009, 6:21pm

#21 says, "To me, To who this may be of interest sounds perfectly natural; non-ironic to whom this may be of interest, while not necessarily incorrect, sounds hopelessly old-fashioned and overly formal, fussy even."

Well, and this is how language changes, I guess. Our reactions are dictated by the environment in which we live and the manner in which we were raised.

I'm 36 years old, and was brought up by New Englander / ivy-educated academic parents (my dad gave me "Strunk & White" as a birthday present when I was in 7th grade). And so for me, "To who this may be of interest..." sounds not only wrong, but evokes in me a visceral reaction like that to nails on a chalkboard.

aug 27, 2009, 6:45pm

"To who this may be of interest" sounds wrong to my ears, but "To whom this may be of interest" is never anything I would say. I'd probably say something like, "to anyone interested in this".

aug 27, 2009, 7:19pm

24, jj..... I enjoy using constructions that are technically correct but colloqially odd, just for the fun of it. The other day I told someone that "I was momentarily flummoxed by the noise across the street."

But I just do it for entertainment value, really..... :-)

aug 27, 2009, 8:28pm

#24 and #25:
"to who" will forever strike me as ignorant. People who don't like it can reword it, but _I_ say "to whom"

And I use unusual words deliberately quite often. It tends to confuse people, but I am often linguistically evil 8-)

aug 27, 2009, 9:54pm


English has a faux ablative with there and thence, and with where and whence. And the possessive is akin to the genitive (he/his, she/hers), perhaps with a word order shift.

Redigeret: aug 27, 2009, 10:10pm

#27 vpfluke:

With there/thence, English has a faux ablative,
and possessives akin to the genetive,
with a word order shift,
the language adrift,

Sorry, I can't think of the best way to finish that limerick. Pretty good so far, though, huh?

aug 28, 2009, 9:37am

Very Good, maybe one of these can finish it off:

And almost cast off its ancient subjunctive.


And calls its dative-writ endings objective.

The latter is an oblique reference to some pronominal endings.

aug 28, 2009, 10:37am

Though i'm darned if i know how the hell it iv.

aug 28, 2009, 10:53am

Mr.Andrew, that was funny. :)

aug 28, 2009, 11:44am

#23: gregstevenstx, #24: jjwilson61

"To who this may interest and whom wants to read on" was one of my attempts at humour. It is intended to sound, and indeed to be, wrong. The OP in that thread was about misuse of "whom", which I had been seeing a lot of in LT reviews and forums. It then naturally developed into discussion also of possible misuse of "who".

#21: Petroglyph "feel free to elaborate! "

I don't need to — your post does it for me!