1. The people ø you work with are your 'colleagues'.
  2. The people that you work with are your 'colleagues'.
  3. The people who you work with are your 'colleagues'.
  4. The people whom you work with are your 'colleagues'.
  5. The people with whom you work are your 'colleagues'.

Which sentence is the least likely and why?

  • Have you checked for previous answers? – Edwin Ashworth Dec 9 '13 at 12:34
  • No, I must admit I have not. I felt pretty confident no such question had been asked yet. – user58319 Dec 9 '13 at 12:44
  • 1
    Of questions about relative clauses… – user58319 Dec 9 '13 at 13:25
  • 1
    When is your homework due? – tchrist Dec 9 '13 at 13:26
  • 1
    Irony cannot be the name of the game… – user58319 Dec 10 '13 at 13:04

Rather than discussing "likelihood", I'll just comment on the noun phrases in the sentences.

  1. The people ø you work with [vp are your 'colleagues']vp.
  2. The people that you work with       "
  3. The people who you work with       "
  4. The people whom you work with       "
  5. The people with whom you work       "

First of all, they're all grammatical English, which not every reader might know.

Next, by identity

  • (1) is a sentence with the relative pronoun deleted.
    You can delete any relative pronoun that's not the subject of the relative clause.
    That's because two noun phrases in a row are a signal to start parsing a relative clause.
    The zero itself isn't audible, but NP NP is.

  • (2) and (3) are the same as (1), except that their relative pronouns have not been deleted,
    for whatever reason -- deletion is a much more common strategy, so this may signal emphasis.
    Stress, intonation, and other cues would guide pragmatic interpretation in speech.
    (By the way, that can be used instead of any wh-pronoun, not just who)

  • (4) and (5), the variants with whom, represent considerably more grammatical labor,
    and correspondingly require considerably more interpretive labor on the part of listeners.

    For example, the speaker of (4) has to produce a case-marked form (whom)
    before producing the structure that determines the case (work with NP).

    And the speaker of (5) has to anticipate the preposition at the end of that construction, too,
    and has to pied-pipe that preposition, along with its case-marked object pronoun
    -- whom is required as the object of a preposition; this is the only place it's ever required --
    to the front of the clause.

    The listener, in turn, has to interpret with whom as a prepositional phrase
    before finding out what the phrase modifies, and even what it means.

    This means being on the lookout for some construction that requires with at the end of it. That's one extra processing load it entails.

    Another is that the correct use of whom has a high degree of difficulty,
    and not even all native speakers get it right. That means loading your debugger, at least.
    I.e, you need the sort of processing that's required to make sense of this text, for instance.

    That's quite a few things to trip over, for speaker and listener alike.
    I'll leave it to you to decide how often, and to whom, and under what circumstances
    you might want to go to this much syntactic trouble, just to promote a motto, ironically.

  • 1
    By 'likelihood', I meant categorizing the sentences as informal, standard, or formal – user58319 Dec 10 '13 at 13:32

Two things combine, here: 1) structures 2) vocabulary

The structure with the preposition before the relative pronoun – with whom you work – is more formal than the one with the preposition staying with the verb – ø / that / who / whom you work with.

The relative pronouns 'who' or 'whom' are more formal than 'that' or dropping the object relative pronoun altogether.

A sensible thing to do is not to combine a formal structure with informal vocabulary or formal vocabulary with an informal structure.

So here, the sentence which would be the least likely is the fourth one, "The people whom you work with are your 'colleagues'." The informal structure, preposition staying with the verb, does not go well with the formal relative pronoun 'whom'.

Another area of 'grey grammar', sentences which cannot be deemed 'wrong' but which you are not likely to hear or read.

I would call

1) informal (informal or standard structure + informal zero relative pronoun)

3) standard (informal or standard structure + standard relative pronoun)

5) formal (formal structure + formal relative pronoun)

The reason 2) is 'not quite right' is that if you go for informality, you might as well go the whole hog rather than stop half-way through. Why stop at 'that' if you can further simplify by leaving the relative pronoun out altogether?! Same reason for 4), for formality and complexifying instead of simplifying.

  • 1
    "the sentence which would be the least likely is the third one," ... er ... third? – Andrew Leach Dec 9 '13 at 13:27
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    Likeliness is a factual matter. Do you have counts and percentages available? If not, you shouldn't say (and certainly shouldn't ask students) which construction is "likely", since that varies from speech group to speech group and sentence to sentence, in different contexts. – John Lawler Dec 9 '13 at 13:53
  • You are right, sorry, fourth! Would a lot of people produce this fourth sentence? – user58319 Dec 9 '13 at 15:04
  • Ignoring references to this thread, there are 6 Google hits for "the people you work with are your 'colleagues' " and zero for all the others. Try "the people you live with" and variants. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 9 '13 at 15:39
  • You cannot tell foreign learners of English that some sentences, despite the fact that they are grammatically correct, do not 'feel' quite right. You need some kind of rule, which will be discarded later on, once the 'feeling' for what is not quite right has developed through extensive reading and listening of authentic material. – user58319 Dec 10 '13 at 11:56

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