H.W. Fowler (1858C1933).  The Kings English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter II. Syntax


d. Case of the relative.

SPECIAL attention was not drawn, in the section on Case, to the gross error committed in the following examples:

Instinctively apprehensive of her father, whom she supposed it was, she stopped in the dark.Dickens.

That peculiar air of contempt commonly displayed by insolent menials to those whom they imagine are poor.Corelli.

It is only those converted by the Gospel whom we pretend are influenced by it.Daily Telegraph.

We found those whom we feared might be interested to withhold the settlement alert and prompt to assist us.Galt.

Mr. Dombey, whom he now began to perceive was as far beyond human recall.Dickens.

Those whom it was originally pronounced would be allowed to go.Spectator.

But this looks as if he has included the original 30,000 men whom he desires 'should be in the country now'.Times.

We feed children whom we think are hungry.Times.

The only gentlemen holding this office in the island, whom, he felt sure, would work for the spiritual good of the parish.Guernsey Advertiser.

These writers evidently think that in 'whom we think are hungry' 'whom' is the object of 'we think'. The relative is in fact the subject of 'are'; and the object of 'we know' is the clause 'who are hungry'; the order of the words is a necessary result of the fact that a relative subject must stand at the beginning of its clause.

(The same awkward necessity confronts us in clauses with 'when', 'though', &c., in which the subject is a relative. Such clauses are practically recognized as impossible, though Otway, in a courageous moment, wrote:

Unblemished honour, and a spotless love;
Which tho' perhaps now know another flame,
Yet I have love and passion for their name.)

Some writers, with a consistency worthy of a better cause, carry the blunder into the passive, renouncing the advantages of an ambiguous 'which' in the active; for in the active 'which' of course tells no tales.

As to all this, the trend of events has been the reverse of that which was anticipated would be the result of democratic institutions.Times.

'Which it was anticipated would be'. Similarly, the passive of 'men whom we-know-are-honest' is the impossible 'men who are-known-are-honest': 'men who we know are honest' gives the correct passive 'men who it is known are honest'.

Nor must it be supposed that 'we know' is parenthetic. In non-defining clauses (Jones, who we know is honest), we can regard the words as parenthetic if we choose, except when the phrase is negative (Jones, who I cannot think is honest); but in a defining clause they are anything but parenthetic. When we say 'Choose men who you know are honest', the words 'you know' add a new circumstance of limitation: it is not enough that the men should in fact be honest; you must know them to be honest; honest men of whose honesty you are not certain are excluded by the words 'you know'. Similarly, in the Guernsey Advertiser quotation above, the writer does not go the length of saying that these are the only gentlemen who would work: he says that they are the only ones of whom he feels sure. The commas of parenthesis ought therefore to go, as well as the comma at 'island', which is improper before a defining clause.

The circumstances under which a parenthesis is admissible in a defining clause may here be noticed.

  1. When the clause is too strict in its limitation, it may be modified by a parenthesis:

    Choose men who, during their time of office, have never been suspected.

    A whole class, excluded by the defining clause, is made eligible by the parenthesis.

  2. Similarly, a parenthesis may be added to tell us that within the limits of the defining clause we have perfect freedom of choice:

    Choose men who, at one time or another, have held office.

    They must have held office, that is all; it does not matter when.

  3. Words of comment, indicating the writer's authority for his limitation, his recognition of the sentiments that it may arouse, and the like, properly stand outside the defining clause: when they are placed within it, they ought to be marked as parenthetic.

    There are men who, so I am told, prefer a lie to truth on its own merits.

    The religion that obtains in Europe, and that, unhappily, has been introduced into America.

    The latter sentence is an adaptation of one considered above on p. 91. 'Unhappily' there appeared not as a parenthesis but as an inseparable part of the relative clause, which was therefore defining or non-defining, according as 'unhappily' could or could not be considered as adding to the limitation. But with the altered punctuation 'unhappily' is separable from the relative clause, which may now define: 'that obtains in Europe and (I am sorry to have to add) in America.'

    In sentences of this last type, the parenthesis is inserted in the defining clause only for convenience: in the others, it is an essential, though a negative, part of the definition. But all three types of parenthesis agree in this, that they do not limit the antecedent; they differ completely from the phrases considered above, which do limit the antecedent, and are not parenthetic.