“There’s some men wouldn’t look at a girl with a baby.” (Ken Follett, Fall of Giants)

There is a young student comes here some evenings. (James Joyce, Dubliners)

“That’s a smell could raise me out of a concrete grave.” (East of Eden)

“I guess it was Cal asked Lee.” (East of Eden)

I have a friend called me yesterday. (The Syntactic Phenomena of English)

There are sayings that subject relative pronouns can’t be omitted. But from the examples above on novels and a syntactic book, the construction seems not a rare case or wrong. What allows them the omission?

  • 2
    They're all wrong. That is, you shouldn't use any of these constructions in formal speech or writing. I believe that all of these examples from novels are taken from the speech of characters in the books, and none of them are speaking in perfect english. Oct 2 '13 at 1:31
  • 2
    First, recall that all of these sentences are written. I.e, you're not hearing them. Somebody else did that already. Second, recall that the most common allomorph of the relative pronoun that -- even in subject position, which all of these are -- is simply /ə/. I.e, I have a friend called me yesterday could easily have had an almost inaudible epenthetic /ə/ between friend and called. And a cooperative listener, or reader, needs nothing more than a "could have been". After all, with the way most people write English, you have to practically turn handsprings to understand them. Oct 2 '13 at 2:12
  • 1
    @PeterShor They don't speak standard formal English; but they speak standard English as it has been spoken for at least 400 years. "Here's one comes in his shirt, with light and weapons." - Othello Oct 2 '13 at 3:01
  • @StoneyB, I wonder if it is my illusion or something, but I have the vibe that I've already read your sayings about the structures and Othello's quotation. Whether it is a déjàvu or reality, I don't know. I can't find it online.
    – Listenever
    Oct 2 '13 at 23:52
  • @Listenever I repeat myself a lot; comes of having very little to say. But it's disconcerting to think I could be quoting myself and Shakespeare at the same time. I've used Othello on ELL, but not that line. Oct 3 '13 at 1:10

All but one of these sentences starts with a phrase saying something exists:

There's …
There is …
That's …
I have a …

I could easily be wrong about this, but my gut feeling is that this is what allows the informal deletion of the subject relative pronoun, although the constructions with it deleted definitely feel informal to me. Taking examples from grammar websites and deleting the subject relative pronoun, in general I find that the only ones I feel work well are those starting with such an existential construction.

I told you about the woman lives next door.
This is the house had a great Christmas decoration.

The following sentences don't work for me when you drop the "who", although maybe it's just because they're more complicated.

*It took me a while to get used to people (who) eat popcorn during the movie.
*The world is a much sunnier place for people (who) have a positive attitude.

  • 2
    Yes, for some varieties of English (very informal to nonstandard), some existentials and it-clefts allow the "that" to be omitted from clauses with relativized subjects. Eg. "It was my father did most of the talking", "There's someone at the door wants to talk to you" -- examples borrowed from the 2002 CGEL page 1055.
    – F.E.
    Jan 19 '14 at 5:01
  • 1
    @F.E. Thanks. I see that the last example, "I guess it was Cal asked Lee", is an it-cleft. Jan 19 '14 at 5:04
  • @F.E. I've already got the words you say in McCawley's book, page 450-6. What a happy moment to see the cases on CGEL.
    – Listenever
    Jan 19 '14 at 12:07

These are all colloquial forms of speech that do not conform to formal rules, are technically incorrect, but are readily understood. People talk this way.

  • 4
    That is to say, they're technically correct. Some people think that they are incorrect, but those people are the ones who are technically incorrect. Oct 2 '13 at 2:06
  • @JohnLawler Yup.
    – bib
    Oct 2 '13 at 2:14

While not dogmatically, I suggest the colloquial nature of the phenomenon is probably a regional and/or cultural thing. I would never (well, never say never) use that construction but would opt for the following versions, even in informal contexts:

  • Some men won’t even look at a girl with a baby.

  • A young student comes here some evenings.

  • That smell could raise me out of a concrete grave.

  • I guess Cal asked Lee.

  • A friend called me yesterday.

In short, what "allows . . . the omission," as you put it, is artistic license, or "that's the way people talk around here"! (That reminds me: one of the best and shortest definitions of culture is, "Culture is the way we do things around here.")


The distinction is also between standard and non-standard varieties of English. I hear constructions like 'There's a man comes here every week'. There is a lot of variation between different varieties of English including those can allow 'what' as a relative pronoun.

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