about whom

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about whom

Post by navi » Sat Aug 09, 2014 7:46 am

Which are correct:

1-The man that we did not know how many prizes he had won entered the room. (informal spoken English)
2-The man about whom we did not know how many prizes he had won entered the room.
3-The man who had won we-did-not-know-how-many-prizes entered the room.

It seems to me that 3 is natural but implies that 'the man' won a great number of prizes. It could not be used if the man might have won few prizes or none at all.

I think 1 could be used in informal spoken English, but would be considered incorrect in formal English.

I am not sure that 2 is really natural.

Gratefully,
Navi.
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Re: about whom

Post by Phil White » Sat Aug 09, 2014 3:11 pm

Hi Navi,

You have hit on a pretty intractable problem in English grammar. I tend to refer to it as "nested qualification", but you won't find that term in any grammar books. I run across it all the time in translating from German to English.

Just a quick note to start with. I use the word "qualify" to refer to anything that restricts, expands or describes any other element of a sentence. Thus, adjectives qualify nouns or noun phrases, adverbs qualify verbs, verb phrases or adjectives, relative clauses qualify nouns, noun phrases or even on occasion entire clauses, and so on. This is not an entirely traditional usage of the word "qualify", but I find it useful to use it in this way.

English runs into problems with multiple levels of qualification, especially with relative clauses, because the grammatical mechanisms used in forming relative clauses cause elements to disappear that are needed as the referent of a further relative clause.

Let's take a simple example.
  • John bought the house. His wife disliked the man who sold the house.
There are virtually no satisfactory ways of combining these two sentences to form a single sentence in English.

Here are some attempts and some notes on the problems that arise:
  • *John bought the house which his wife disliked the man who sold it.
    This is completely impenetrable and the "it" at the end has no grammatical justification. In relative clauses, the "it" is moved to the front and becomes the relative pronoun.
  • *John bought the house which his wife disliked the man who sold.
    This is even less comprehensible, even though the "it" has moved correctly.
  • John bought the house which the man sold whom his wife disliked.
    Better, but a couple of problems here. Generally, we prefer relative pronouns to immediately follow their referent, so we would prefer "the man whom". Secondly, it is unclear whether the referent of "his" is John or the man who sold the house.
  • John bought the house which the man whom his wife disliked sold.
    This attempts to place the relative pronoun after its referent, but is pretty awful and does not resolve the ambiguity as to whose wife we are talking about.
In many cases like this, a passive construction can help:
  • John bought the house [that was] sold by the man [whom] his wife disliked.
That's not too bad, and resolves the issues with the previous two versions. Note that I have made the relative pronouns optional. They are very often omitted in speech and you will also increasingly see them omitted in writing. But beware -- there are some rules that govern the omission of relative pronouns. That's an issue for another day.

To get to your sentences, the comments you make are okay, but none of the sentences are pretty, and your sentences 1 and 2 suffer from the problem that grammatical rules require "he" to be moved to the front and become the relative pronoun (which is already there for another reason). If we omit the "he", however, the sentences sound even worse.

In fact, minds far better than mine have already tackled this problem, and if you have a look for "Ross constraints" or "wh- movement" in Google, you will find plenty of descriptions that are pretty well impossible for people without several higher degrees in linguistics to understand. The Ross constraints cover a number of similar issues to the one raised by your sentence, as does "wh- movement", but it seems to me that most of the issues are things that linguists (and possibly learners of English) think we should have easy ways of saying. We don't. They are problems that we simply avoid.

The long and the short of it is that English does not easily allow you to build sentences like this, and native speakers simply avoid them.
  • The man entered the room. We did not know how many prizes he had won.
Of course, this is bland, but it depends what else you want to say.
  • The man entered the room. We did not know how many prizes he had won, but he seemed extremely self-effacing.
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Re: about whom

Post by Phil White » Sat Aug 09, 2014 3:45 pm

One more minor point.

In your sentence 2, "of" works a little better than "about".

2-The man of whom we did not know how many prizes he had won entered the room.
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Re: about whom

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Aug 09, 2014 8:15 pm

Phil White wrote:
"John bought the house. His wife disliked the man who sold the house".

There are virtually no satisfactory ways of combining these two sentences to form a single sentence in English.
This is normally true with juxtaposed sentences of this type. However, in this particular case the use of a conjunction like but, yet or though gets around the problem. For instance:
"John bought the house, though his wife disliked the man who sold the house".
Better still:
"John bought the house, though his wife disliked the man who sold it".
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Re: about whom

Post by Phil White » Sat Aug 09, 2014 11:09 pm

Quite so, but the introduction of any conjunction other than "and" introduces nuances that a relative construction does not.
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Re: about whom

Post by navi » Sun Aug 10, 2014 7:11 am

Wow! I generally do not make simple 'thank you' posts for fear of wasting the time of people who open the thread to see what has been posted. A 'thank you ' note does not carry any information and people might be disappointed by it. In this case, I will make an exception though.

Your post Phil is very detailed and to the point. Erik's post also was extremely useful. So thank you both!

Respectfully,
Navi.
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Re: about whom

Post by JerrySmile » Sun Aug 10, 2014 7:22 pm

Plainly speaking, 1 and 2 are awkward/unnatural.
3 is the only one really heard out there.

More compact:

The man with god knows how many prizes entered the room.
or hyphenated:
The man with god-knows-how-many prizes entered the room.

cf.
"I asked Bela why a man with God-knows-how-many hundreds of studio sessions for other albums; with his own band, the Flecktones; and with a series of solo albums, each better than the last — why he took this tiny label's project so seriously."
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Re: about whom

Post by navi » Wed Aug 13, 2014 12:35 pm

Thank you very much Jerry,

But wouldn't you say that:

3-The man who had won we-did-not-know-how-many-prizes entered the room.
and
4-The man with god-knows-how-many prizes entered the room. [Your sentence]

both imply that he had won many prizes?

Could they be used in a 'neutral' context, ie. when one really had no idea how many prizes he had won?

Gratefully,
Navi.
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Re: about whom

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Wed Aug 13, 2014 10:46 pm

The man who had won an unknown (to us) number of prizes entered the room.
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Re: about whom

Post by JerrySmile » Fri Aug 15, 2014 11:44 am

>Could they be used in a 'neutral' context, ie. when one really had no idea how many prizes he had won?

Getting obfuscating here:

The only-god-knows-whether-he-won-any-prizes man entered the room.

The did-he-win-any-prizes man entered the room.

The man whose number of prizes was a question mark entered the room.

or:

John Archer was to be a famous writer — that was crystal clear to that assembly of readers or scribblers. No one but some literary god, though, could've told/said if nor [sic] how many prizes he'd already won — for they must of [sic] been of a rather peripheral nature.
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