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The Onion: Rules Grammar Change

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Grammar: Pronouns Part XVI—Relative Antecedents

Like most pronouns, the relative pronouns who, which, and that have antecedents—nouns or pronouns to which they refer. Usually the antecedent to a relative pronoun appears in the main clause of the sentence. For clarity, the relative pronoun should immediately follow its antecedent:

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, a holiday that popular belief claims is named after a third-century priest who was executed for performing illegal marriage ceremonies.

Subject-Verb Agreement

Relative pronouns that are the subjects of subordinate clauses take verbs that agree with their antecedents:

Some argue that Valentine’s Day is a holiday that was invented—or at least heavily marketed—by Hallmark.

Questions arise with sentences that include the phrases one of the and only one of the. Chicago prescribes treating one of the constructions as plural and only one of the constructions as singular:

Due to these marketing efforts, Valentine’s Day is one of the few holidays that are celebrated throughout the world.

It is the only one of the myriad holidays that is dedicated to romantic love.

Don’t try applying this guideline on the SAT, though where one is always just that: one—i.e., singular.

Omitted Antecedents

If there isn’t an antecedent, however, what can be used to mean that which:

Is that what you meant by sending me a Valentine’s Day card?

The Mots Justes Series on Pronouns

Part I—The Basics

Part II—Location, Location, Location

Part III—Number

Part IV—Person

Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

Part VI—On the Case

Part VII—Something Personal Between You and Me

Part VIII—Infinitives

Part IX—Indeterminate Gender

Part X—Indefinitely (We, You, and They)

Part XI—Indefinitely (It)

Part XII—Possession

Part XIII—Demonstrative

Part XIV—Interrogative

Part XV—Relative

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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Grammar: Pronouns Part XV—Relative

Relative pronouns—who, whom, whose, which, that, and what—introduce a relative (or subordinate) clause and relates it to the rest of the sentence.

Who Vs. Whom

Who is in subjective case. It can be used when the relative pronoun serves as the subject of the subordinate clause:

Led by Brett Favre, who played quarterback at rival Green Bay for fifteen years, the Minnesota Vikings are one game away from the Super Bowl.

Whom is in objective case. It can also be used in two situations: as the object of a verb or the object of a preposition:

Brad Childress, whom the team hired four years ago, has finally coached the Vikings to the NFC Championship game.

Crucial to the Vikings win yesterday was Sidney Rice, to whom Favre threw three touchdown passes.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out whether the relative pronoun is in subjective or objective case, substitute he or him, rewriting the sentence as necessary:

Led by Brett Favre, the Minnesota Vikings are one game away from the Super Bowl. He played quarterback at rival Green Bay for years.

Brad Childress has finally coached the Vikings to the NFC Championship game. The team hired him four years ago.

Crucial to the Vikings win yesterday was Sidney Rice. Favre threw three touchdown passes to him.

If you would use he in the sentence, then use who. If you would use him in the sentence, use whom. Just remember that the m’s in him and whom go together.

Whose is in the possessive case and thus shows ownership:

Adrian Peterson, whose running game is a constant threat, had a relatively quiet game.

Who Vs. Which Vs. That Vs. What

Use who, whom, and whose only when referring to a person. They can be used in first, second, or third person. (See examples above.)

Use which only when referring to an animal or thing:

The team, which got skunked in its last division championship by the New York Giants in 2001, goes into New Orleans with a definitive win against Dallas.

Use what only when referring to a nonliving thing:

The drubbing was exactly what the Vikings needed going into next week’s game against the Saints.

Both which and what can be used in the second or third person, but not in the first.

Use that to refer to a person, animal, or thing. It can be used in the first, second, or third person:

In the locker room after the game, Favre sang the “Pants on the Ground” song that was made famous on American Idol.

For the difference between that and which, see this previous post on comma use with subordinate clauses.

Compound Relative Pronouns

Compound relative pronouns are formed by adding the suffice -ever­ to who, whom, what, or which. Whoever, whomever, whatever, and whichever don’t point back to a noun or pronoun but refer generally to any or all people or things:

Whomever the Vikings face in the rest of the playoffs will be formidable opponents.

Whatever happens next weekend, the Vikings had a fun and exciting season.

Do you have a question about pronouns? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Pronouns

Part I—The Basics

Part II—Location, Location, Location

Part III—Number

Part IV—Person

Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

Part VI—On the Case

Part VII—Something Personal Between You and Me

Part VIII—Infinitives

Part IX—Indeterminate Gender

Part X—Indefinitely (We, You, and They)

Part XI—Indefinitely (It)

Part XII—Possession

Part XIII—Demonstrative

Part XIV—Interrogative

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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Monday Morning Grammar: Pronouns Part XIV—Interrogative

Interrogative pronouns—who, whom, whose, which, and what—introduce questions.

Who Vs. Whom

Who is in subjective case. It can be used in two situations: as the subject of a verb or as the predicate nominative after a linking verb:

Who hosted a Halloween party this year?

It was who?

Whom is in objective case. It can also be used in two situations: as the object of a verb or preposition:

Whom did you invite to your Halloween party?

As whom did you dress for your costume?

If you’re having a hard time figuring out whether the interrogative pronoun is in subjective or objective case, substitute he or him, rewriting the sentence as necessary:

He hosted a Halloween party this year.

You invited him to your Halloween party.

If you would use he in the sentence, then use who. If you would use him in the sentence, use whom. Just remember that the m’s in him and whom go together.

Whose is in the possessive case and thus shows ownership:

Whose costume was best at the party?

Who Vs. Which

When working as interrogative pronouns, who and which can both refer to people, but their uses differ.

Who is general. Use it when anyone could be the answer:

Who wants to go trick-or-treating this year?

Who also asks about the identity of a specific person:

Who is that woman dressed as a witch?

Which is limited, asking for a member of a group:

Which Beatle are you supposed to be?

Which Vs. What

Either which or what can be used when referring to a person or thing:

Which one of you made your own costume?

What kind of candy did you hand out to trick-or-treaters this year?

When used in reference to a person, what asks a question about that person—what they’re like, what they do, etc.:

What do you think of the party’s host?

When used in reference to a thing, what is used broadly to ask for a thing, especially among a set:

What are you supposed to be?

What was the best costume of the night?

Do you have a question about pronouns? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Pronouns

Part I—The Basics

Part II—Location, Location, Location

Part III—Number

Part IV—Person

Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

Part VI—On the Case

Part VII—Something Personal Between You and Me

Part VIII—Infinitives

Part IX—Indeterminate Gender

Part X—Indefinitely (We, You, and They)

Part XI—Indefinitely (It)

Part XII—Possession

Part XIII—Demonstrative

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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Monday Morning Grammar: Pronouns Part XIII—Demonstrative

This, that, these, and those are demonstrative pronouns—or, if you want to get fancy about it, deictic pronouns—that identify or point directly to their antecedents.

This and that are used for singular antecedents:

This is my professional blog about “finding the right words.”

That is my personal blog about staycationing in Los Angeles.

These and those are used for plural antecedents:

These are posts about writing and editing.

Those are posts about getting out and being a tourist in my hometown.

In all of the examples given so far, the demonstrative pronoun has functioned like a noun equivalent in the sentence, but demonstrative pronouns often work as adjectives:

I have been posting to this blog for over a year.

I just started that blog last month.

This and these refer to things that are nearby, whether in time, space, or thought, while these and those refer to things that are farther away.

The antecedent for a demonstrative pronoun can be a noun, phrase, clause, sentence, or implied thought, as long as it’s clear.

Kinda Sorta

Kind of and sort of, when use to mean “a class of,” are often used with adjectival forms of demonstrative pronouns:

This kind of professional blog helps me learn more about my craft while connecting me with other writers and editors.

Those sorts of personal blogs provide structure to my free time while giving me another outlet for creative writing.

Do you have a question about pronouns? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Pronouns

Part I—The Basics

Part II—Location, Location, Location

Part III—Number

Part IV—Person

Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

Part VI—On the Case

Part VII—Something Personal Between You and Me

Part VIII—Infinitives

Part IX—Indeterminate Gender

Part X—Indefinitely (We, You, and They)

Part XI—Indefinitely (It)

Part XII—Possession

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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Monday Morning Grammar: Pronouns Part XI—Indefinitely (It)

Monday Morning Grammar: Pronouns Part XI—Indefinitely (It)

It is SAT season, and one of the rules I emphasize with my students as they prepare for the test is that personal pronouns always need to have a clear antecedent. (Two exceptions, even on the SAT, are I and you, whose antecedents—the person speaking or writing and the person being spoken or written to—are implied.) However, in everyday language, it is often used as an indefinite pronoun.

The pronoun it can be used to refer to a phrase, clause, sentence, or idea that’s implied but not explicitly stated:

In yesterday’s Vikings game against the 49ers, Brett Favre threw a game-winning touchdown with just two seconds left on the clock. You have to see it to believe it.

In this example, you can infer that it refers to the play: You have to see the play to believe it.

It can be the subject of a sentence without having an antecedent. Usually the verb in such a sentence is a form of to be:

It was amazing.

It can also open a sentence and introduce a phrase or clause that comes after the verb:

It is strange to see Favre wearing purple after he played for so many years in Packers green.

And it can introduce a subject or object before it appears in a sentence:

I find it hard to get used to this new world order.

Finally, it can serve as a subject in a sentence discussing time or the weather:

It is autumn; it has finally cooled down.

However, although I’ve been known to favor starting sentences with It’s …—check out the first sentence of this post, for example—I wouldn’t recommend it in academic writing because your meaning can become muddled:

Everywhere I go, even at the Goodwill donation center, people want to talk about Favre. It is exciting.

What is exciting? Favre? Or that everyone wants to talk about him?

Friends of my family have a nephew who plays for the Packers. It is a good opportunity.

What is a good opportunity? Ostensibly, it’s the nephew’s position on the team, but the antecedent isn’t clear.

Do you have a question about pronouns? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Pronouns

Part I—The Basics

Part II—Location, Location, Location

Part III—Number

Part IV—Person

Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

Part VI—On the Case

Part VII—Something Personal Between You and Me

Part VIII—Infinitives

Part IX—Indeterminate Gender

Part X—Indefinitely (We, You, and They)

Resource

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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Monday Morning Grammar: Pronouns Part X—Indefinitely (We, You, and They)

There are some personal pronouns that don’t need antecedents for their referent nouns to remain clear. I, for example, always refers to the speaker or writer, and you refers to the person being spoken or written to. Likewise, sometimes we, you, and they don’t need antecedents because they are being used indefinitely to refer to “one” or “people in general.”

The editorial we is used by an individual who is speaking for a group—the staff of a magazine, for example, or an entire company:

On this website we cover writing- and editing-related topics like grammar and punctuation, structure and style, and the creative life.

A writer might also use we to personalize his or her writing or make the reader feel included:

By applying the guidelines discussed here, we can develop strategies for finding the right words.

You can be used in the same way that one refers to any reader or all readers. (Just don’t mix-and-match you and one in the same sentence.)

If you have a question about writing or editing, you can find the answer here. (And if you can’t, let us know and we’ll find it for you!)

Finally, they can be used indefinitely when the antecedent is unidentified or unimportant.

They say there are no rules in writing.

(I caution against this usage in academic writing, though—your grader will want to know who says that and look for a citation!)

Do you have a question about pronouns? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Pronouns

Part I—The Basics

Part II—Location, Location, Location

Part III—Number

Part IV—Person

Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

Part VI—On the Case

Part VII—Something Personal Between You and Me

Part VIII—Infinitives

Part IX—Indeterminate Gender

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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