Explaining the omission of relative pronouns

Discussion in 'English Only' started by _Steven, Nov 22, 2012.

  1. _Steven New Member

    British English
    Hi all,

    Does anyone have a clear way of explaining when we can omit relative pronouns, such as in sentences like "The house (that) he owns" and "The girl (that/who/whom) he met"?

    I'm particularly interested in finding an explanation that would be simple for Spanish speakers.

    I had thought that a simple trick would be to think that if the clause starts with a noun/pronoun then you can omit the relative pronoun, but for Spanish speakers that are beginners that wouldn't be especially clear since in Spanish the nouns and pronouns would normally go after the verb. I've looked on quite a few websites and in some grammar books but I've only found explanations that are long and awkward.

    Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2012
  2. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    The explanation is very simple: the pronoun can be omitted if it is not the subject of the relative clause.

    the girl that/who met him [She met him: she is subject, so a relative word is required]
    the girl __/that/who/whom he met [He met her: she is object of verb, so the relative word can be omitted]
    the girl __/that/who/whom he talked to [He talked to her: she is object of preposition, so the relative word can be omitted]

    When she is the object of the relative clause, the clause has another word that is its subject, and this therefore starts the clause if there is no relative pronoun before it - the test you have proposed. But this is an incidental effect. The explanation is entirely in the roles in the relative clause.
  3. PStorm Member

    Portuguese - Portugal

    The relative pronouns who, whom, which and that can be omitted when they are the object of a preposition or of a verb.
    1) I've booked my flight to a city that I particularly like. (“That” is the object of the verb “like”, it can be omitted.)
    = I've booked my flight to a city I particularly like.

    2) The child whom he was walking with is his son. (“Whom” is the object of the preposition “with”, it can be omitted.)
    = The child he was walking with is his son.
    However, “whom” cannot be omitted if it is preceded by the preposition: The child with whom he was walking is his son.)

    3) I like books which make me travel. (“which” is the subject of the verb “make”, therefore it cannot be omitted.)

    Or, if you prefer: relative pronouns who, whom, which and that can be omitted except if there is a preposition preceding them OR if they are the subject of the verb.
  4. _Steven New Member

    British English
    Thank you both!

    PStorm, I assume in Portuguese you can't omit the relative pronoun, did you find this kind of explanation simple when you first encountered it?

    My experience is that it is taught to beginners who are not especially confident at identifying whether a relative pronoun is the subject or the object - it takes too much thinking to be able to put it into practice. Since there's no real harm in keeping the relative pronouns, I wonder how important it is to teach beginners about omitting them. What do you two think?

    (PStorm, I personally wouldn't separate whom and the preposition as in your example "The child whom he was walking with is his son", I would either change it to "who... with/to" or use the rather formal "with whom" as in your other example ... I doubt there are any strict rules for this, it's just my personal opinion.)
  5. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    If they can't learn what subject and object are, they can't learn a language at all.
  6. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    English - British
    If B cannot be understood until A has been understood, then it is good practice not to try and teach B until A has been taught.
  7. PStorm Member

    Portuguese - Portugal

    No, in Portuguese you cannot omit it. At least I can't remember any exception...

    I find it an easy explanation, but I can tell subject from object, which most of my students cannot, unfortunately. And that scares me, cause it just tells me how inadequate the Portuguese teaching is these days (both in Portugal and Brazil) - I don't know if this happens with Spanish teaching in Spanish countries... So my Ss, children and adults, can't tell subject from object, noun from adjective and often they have to think what a verb is. Difficult teaching a second language, isn't it?

    Therefore, the only solution, after mentioning the rules of relative pronouns omission, is practicing with lots of examples, asking them if the subject is there or if it is missing after removing the relative pronoun (and of course teaching them basic Portuguese grammar :( ).
    But I avoid teaching relative pronouns omission to beginners, unless they ask (translating a song or something like it). You are right: there's no harm in using. I leave that to more advanced Ss.

    As for who or whom: I hear frequently that whom is not used anymore and all can be reduced to who. However, I use WHO as subject (Who opened the door?) and WHOM as object (Whom did you see?)
  8. PStorm Member

    Portuguese - Portugal

    With whom or whom ... with: like you, I'd use normally with whom, but I believe both can be used :)
  9. _Steven New Member

    British English
    Thanks for your opinion entangledbank.

    I'd say that it's not that they can't learn what subject and object are, it's simply that for beginners it's not so easy to identify them quickly. In my experience students find it completely unnatural to omit the relative pronoun. They tend not to bother at first, which for the most part is completely acceptable, it's only later that they learn to drop the pronouns through listening and conversation practice. However, this is normally part of the curriculum for beginners, they're expected to practice omitting the pronouns where possible, yet explaining it the traditional way can leave some students confused. Basically it's a waste of time and I was hoping to find a way to explain it that wouldn't result in beginners having to pause to think about it too much before speaking. I'd rather hear "The car that I saw" than "The car.....I saw".

    If anyone has any thoughts on this I'd love to hear them. Particularly if anyone has had similar experiences and has found ways to make this clear (again, I'm particularly thinking about teaching Spanish speakers for whom this may be especially unnatural).
  10. _Steven New Member

    British English
    Thanks PStorm. Glad to hear someone else thinks it's not vital for beginners! I think in Spain most people know what subject and object are in Spanish, but mightn't be able to apply that to English. It becomes confusing when in Spanish the word order changes quite a lot, particularly with pronouns - and that subject and object pronouns are often the same and/or doubled-up/omitted. SHE met HER - (ELLA) LA conocio (a ELLA). :-\
    With regards to the WHO...with/WHOM...with thing, I think it's that it used to be that you should always use whom as the object and you never separate the pronoun and the preposition; I'm quite happy breaking the rules and using "who" and putting the preposition later, it's just my personal preference to either "break" both rules or neither. I doubt there's any official justification for that, it just feels better to me.

    Hi Wandle,

    Do you agree with PStorm and me that it might be more sensible to teach this later, or are you suggesting (as I think entangledbank may have been) that thoroughly teaching students to identify subjects and objects first is the most sensible idea?
  11. _Steven New Member

    British English
    PStorm, how would you explain the omission of the conjunction "that" to your students? As in "I think (that) your previous explanation was very helpful".
  12. _Steven New Member

    British English
    oops! - posted twice by accident.
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2012
  13. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    Steven, how old are your students?

    Basically, if you can use verbs, then you know about what subjects and objects are. You might not know that you know, but you certainly do understand the difference. (Maybe this is not true in some languages, but in Western languages it's definitely true.)

    And if you're forming relative clauses, then you have to know the difference between subject and object, because the subject is left out of relative clauses where the relative pronoun is the subject of the verb:

    The boy who hit the ball is my brother (not "the boy who the boy hit the ball is my brother")
    The ball that the boy hit sailed out of the park (not "the ball that hit sailed out of the park")
  14. PStorm Member

    Portuguese - Portugal
    Usually I make clear that the subject does something ("something" being the object).
    Then I elicit Ss to check if any of the verbs is "moved" by THAT. In this case, we have 2 verbs, but THINK is "moved" by I and WAS is "moved" by "your previous explanation". So, if THAT is not "moving/doing" anything, we can send it home, cause it is not really needed. Generally speaking, my Ss love writing as least as possible. So they are quite cooperative on that :D
  15. _Steven New Member

    British English
    Lucas-sp, thanks for your comment.

    A whole range of ages. Typically children have no problem with this. I find that adults tend to be more reluctant to accept things that seem illogical or unnatural to them. Why do you ask?
  16. _Steven New Member

    British English
    PStorm, thanks once again!
  17. PStorm Member

    Portuguese - Portugal
    Yvw, Steven!
  18. alvarorubio01 Member

    Español, España (Murcia)
    Probably I am too late and this won't help you anymore, but I think that as PStorm has stated, the key point is on the matter of subject. Of course it will depend on the knowledge the students have about grammar and syntax. But at school and high school we (I am a Spanish speaker) learn how our language works making morphosyntax analyses, so probably it won't be too difficult for them to understand. Going back to the subject issue, you could explain that when that works as subject of the subordinate clause, it will never be omitted.
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2015
  19. firowr

    firowr New Member

    Just copy from CGEL:

    The prohibition on dropping the that with relativised subjects is associated with the need to distinguish the subordinate relative clause from the matrix predicate.

    For more details, please reference Page 1055 of CGEL.
    3-5-5 § Non-wh relatives: presence or absence of that

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