Friday, January 28, 2005


The Man just told me that when he was at school he learned that in proper English you couldn't use the relative pronoun who with a plural subject. In other words, it is ungrammatical to say, for example, People who wear too much perfume should be forced through a sheep dip before getting on the rush hour train.

I told him I'd never heard such nonsense, and asked him what he was told to use instead. He couldn't remember. He thought it might have been which.

"People which wear ...?" I said. "I don't think so!"

"OK, so maybe it wasn't which," he replied, but couldn't come up with a feasible alternative. It wasn't that. He remembered that much.

He wondered whether it was an old rule, since many of the English grammar rules taught at Japanese schools back in the Dark Ages, when he was at school, were already at least 100 years out of date even then. (These days they're 140 years out of date.)

I don't think so, though. Have you ever heard of this one? Which ancient grammar rule could his teacher have been invoking when he got this one wrong?

Incidentally, besides having to memorise a lot of arcane, useless, and frequently wrong grammatical rules, The Man's English education also included various disconnected bits of literature, most of which were meaningless to him at the time. Imperfectly remembered snippets stuck, though, so that I cannot start a sentence, "I wonder ..." without him feeling compelled to interrupt, "Lonely as a cloud." These days I do it too, and annoy my friends.


Andy N. said...

I admit to being no master grammarian, however, I believe he may be correct, in spite of the common usage.
If I borrow from the example given: Which people wear too much perfume? (that's the easy part) Those which are over dressed, or those which are under showered?
Argh! Have I become so linguisticly corrupt? So hard to maintain the rule once established! or can you explain why 'which' is proper in the first instance, and not proper (or not necessary) in the later two?

As usual, I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog. May I link you from mine? (snd no, you do not need to reciprocate - mine is hardly worth the read in comparison)

Badaunt said...

Sorry, I can't explain it, being a student of grammar as it is rather than of how it 'should' be!

However, 'Which people wear too much perfume?' could be rephrased as 'Who wears too much perfume?' couldn't it? ... but maybe the answer is supposed to refer to only one person? (According to the 'rule' I don't know, that is.)

Hmm... and you could also use 'which' for singular; e.g. 'Which person wears too much perfume?' On the other hand you could not use 'Who person' or 'who people'. In other words 'who' and 'which' have different functions...

But anyway, if you remember some rule like this, then it probably exists and it's just that I've never heard of it! And I'm supposed to be an English teacher.

Of course you may link to my blog. I am flattered.

Andy N. said...

Who said I remember a rule? It just seems from some fuzzy past instance to be so, perhaps from that grand Doctor of English: Dr Seuss, that it is important to remember which who is whom, which and when, as plural Whos may confuse again, especially to the Whos down in Whoville.

I know an extraordinary english teacher here too - perhaps I'll ask her. :) Thanks

Daryl said...

Perhaps it's a twisted version of the "Which informs, that defines" rule. Apparently Americans tend to be especially fussy about the distinction between "which" and "that" (according to the Economist Style Guide, at least) and since presumably Japanese English is more influenced by American English the rule might have come down and undergone some sort of misunderstanding?

Faerunner said...

I would have to agree with Andy (as he is my father, after all) and say that "Those which..." almost sounds correct. I'll have to look it up, though.
might help... I'm afraid I'm not quite the grammatical genius myself. I do nearly as well as the average english teacher, however.