September 22, 2014

Relative Pronoun Antecedent Agreement



Would you write "It is I who am" or "It is I who is"? And, more important, how can you be sure it's right? The answer lies in the concept known as relative pronoun antecedent agreement and, spoiler alert, the first of our two examples is the one you want. Here's the full explanation.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

  • Share

More From the Author of My Favorite Attack E-mail
Posted by June on September 22, 2014


After the e-mail exchange with Paul in Venice, which I wrote about here last week, I did a column about it. Paul saw the column. Here’s the exchange that ensued:

Dear June:

The vehemence of my reaction was due to the number of errors I found in your piece. I'm sure that if I met you in person, I would have responded differently, but as a pontificating, online grammarian you did rub me the wrong way. I was taken aback by the mistakes I would have edited out if your column had passed over my desk. These include not only conjunctions beginning sentences, which is something I was taught to shun, but is evidently allowed in informal writing as you pointed out; but also numerous fragments as well the subject verb agreement I mentioned, and “Yes, I know it looks like the Internet age is dragging our language down the tubes” when the proper usage should have been "as if." Also, can you really stand by this statement? “English grammar itself doing is just fine.”

I initially didn’t respond because of two reasons: First you didn’t deal with my reaction to sentence fragments. Instead you said I was wrong on every count. When you said I had a “superstition” about beginning a sentence with a conjunction, after that word misuse I dismissed your opinion as not mattering at all. Still, you did write a column about me so, FYI, here’s what superstition means according to my dictionary: su·per·sti·tion noun \ˌsü-pər-ˈsti-shən\

: a belief or way of behaving that is based on fear of the unknown and faith in magic or luck : a belief that certain events or things will bring good or bad luck.

I will continue to write, edit and teach. You will continue to write and edit, although you do adhere to lower standards. I wish you no ill will. Still, I did give your column to my Saturday high school English students for them to correct. It makes for a good lesson in moving from informal to formal English.



Here's how I responded.

Hi, Paul.

I didn’t realize you were in a position to influence impressionable high school kids. So let me ask you a question: Do you believe that a teacher should be prepared to swallow his pride if necessary to do right by his students? If your answer is yes, please heed what I’m about to say.

You’re passing along bad information to kids, Paul. You owe it to them to educate yourself.

The one thing I suspect you know already: Sentence fragments are fine. The most respected publications in the English-speaking world use them on purpose. If you paid attention in your reading you’d see that. So if you have a problem with fragments, you have a problem not with me but with the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Penguin Publishing, Random House publishing, and on and on. But because you’ve already failed to see that, I’ll cite a source. “The Copyeditor’s Handbook,” fourth edition, which is the main text of UC San Diego Extension’s copy editing program (for which I sometimes teach), notes on page 25 that fragments are “fine in the right circumstances.” We caution kids against fragments because kids often mistake them for grammatically complete sentences. But that elementary lesson in no way reflects on whether fragments are appropriate in a newspaper column. They are.

You note that “conjunctions beginning sentences ... is something I was taught to shun.” You were taught wrong. “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” under the entry “Superstitions,” cites the following sources, which for your students’ sake I’ll take the time to retype.

“Next to the groundless notion that it is incorrect to end an English sentence with a preposition, perhaps the most widespread of many false beliefs about the use of our language is the equally groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one with ‘but’ or ‘and.’ As is the case of the superstition about the prepositional ending, no textbook supports it, but about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help but wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves.” Charles Allen Lloyd, “We Who Speak English” (1938).

“There is no reason why sentences should not begin with ‘and.’” Roy H. Copperud, “American Usage” (1970).

“Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it.” William Zissner, “On Writing Well” (1988).

I don’t have time to retype similar entries from the Chicago Manual of Style, Fowler’s Modern English Usage and the many other books in my reference library, but I urge you to research this matter. You’re doing your students a disservice if you don’t.

Re “like” for “as if.” Please look that up, Paul. “Like” can mean “as if.” It can also mean “such as” (which I mention in case you’re a victim of that myth, too).

Can I stand by the statement “English grammar itself is doing just fine”? Well, it’s Noam Chomsky’s assertion. So if he can, I can. Here’s a link to a column I wrote in 2008 citing him saying as much:

Re “superstition”: Your grasping at straws to find a way to dismiss my last e-mail gives me hope I might be getting through to you. But if you stand by your “gotcha,” please note the use of “superstition” in the citations above.

What’s more, it looks like you got your definition from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. If so, you need to know this: You can’t prohibit a usage based on a dictionary entry unless you read the whole entry. That dictionary defines “superstition” as “a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary” (here’s the link:

Do you still think my use of “superstition” was a valid basis on which to dismiss my opinion as “not mattering at all”? Or does it sound more like you were looking for ways to protect your pride?

I can imagine how unpleasant it must be to learn you’ve been operating from a place of ignorance for so long. But you owe it to your kids to swallow your pride and educate yourself.

I urge you to get a copy of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (not a dictionary, a usage guide), Garner’s Modern American Usage and The Oxford English Grammar (out of print but still available). Get as many other grammar and usage guides as you can get your hands on. Read the Chicago Manual of Style. Read Spend a fun afternoon with Barbara Wallraff’s “Word Court.” Don’t operate on what you were taught by a misinformed person half a century ago. Do your own research.

If you read just one thing, read the aptly titled article “Most of What You Think You Know About Grammar Is Wrong,” published last year in Smithsonian magazine.

It will help you realize that you were taught wrong, and you’re not alone.






June Casagrande is a writer and journalist whose weekly grammar/humor column, “A Word, Please,” appears in community newspapers in California, Florida, and Texas. more

The Best Punctuation Book, Period

A Comprehensive Guide for Every Writer, Editor, Student, and Businessperson

The most comprehensive punctuation guide ever, “The Best Punctuation Book, Period” doesn’t just cover the basic rules. It delves into gray areas of punctuation left unclear by the other rule books, showing how the rules differ in four different editing styles. There's also an A to Z reference of commonly mispunctuated terms. more

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies

A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite

What do suicidal pandas, doped-up rock stars, and a naked Pamela Anderson have in common? They’re all a heck of a lot more interesting than reading about predicate nominatives and hyphens. June Casagrande knows this and has invented a whole new twist on the grammar book. more

Mortal Syntax

Mortal Syntax takes on the 101 most frequently attacked usage choices. Dedicating one short chapter to each, Casagrande brings her subject to life, teaching English usage through lively and amusing personal anecdotes. more

It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences

Your story may be brilliant. Your insights may be groundbreaking. Your characters may be so real you can almost touch them. But they're not worth a thing if you can't bring them to life in well-written sentences. more

  • Good Verbs, Lame Verbs: A Look at Three Writers

    June Carina: I doubt it has anything to do with the translator. His books are loaded with passages like "Salander soon discovered that the person who had leaked the information to the media was Ekstrom himself. This was evident from an email in which he answered follow-up questions about both Salander's psychiatric report and the connection between her and Miriam Wu. ... The third significant piece of information was the insight that Bublanski's team did not have a single lead as to where they should look for Salander." Notice how the thoughts are arranged in the sentence: the action is trapped in subordinate clauses. Two of the main clauses are "be" ("this was," "the piece of information was") and the other is a static state-of-mind verb. It seems highly unlikely that the translator is responsible for subordinating all the action.

  • Good Verbs, Lame Verbs: A Look at Three Writers

    Carina Think it has anything to do with the translator?

  • Suffixes: How to Know Whether It's Systemwide or System-wide

    June Angel: Sorry I didn't answer your question. I can't seem to find it. What was the question? If you wanted to know whether "wide" itself is a suffix and should therefore be attached without a hyphen, it looks like the two major styles vary. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate (which Chicago style follows) does not have an entry for "wide" as a suffix. So in that style, you couldn't just attach "wide" to the end of another word. You'd need a hyphen: community-wide. Webster's New World College Dictionary (which AP style follows) DOES list "-wide" as a suffix. So in that style you could write it with no hyphen: communitywide. However, if you don't like the way that looks, you're also at liberty to treat "wide" as a regular word and attach it with a hyphen: "community-wide." Please let me know whether this answers your question and, if not, what your original question was!

  • Suffixes: How to Know Whether It's Systemwide or System-wide

    angel So what was the answer or what was the suffix or prefix in wide?? You did not answer my question... http://suffixword

  • Suffixes: How to Know Whether It's Systemwide or System-wide

    angel So what is the suffix of wide?? You did not answer my question... http://suffixword