Somebody once observed two things:

  • people often omit the relative pronoun "who" or "whom" to avoid having to worry about which is grammatically correct
  • however, in all cases where it can be omitted, it is "whom".

But look at this sentence:

I have a friend I hope will come.

Would you consider this to be grammatical, and therefore a counterexample to the latter point?

  • It seems to fit your rule fine. To separate all the pieces: "I have a friend. I hope something about him. He will come." If you want to elide or refer to the 'he', then it would be from "I have -that- I hope will come."
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 20, 2011 at 22:15
  • It depends on whether you parse "I hope" parenthetically or syntactically: if it is parenthesis ("I have a friend who, I hope, will come"), the sentence would be wrong; otherwise it would be OK. Commented Mar 21, 2011 at 16:41
  • Very related and possible duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/q/1095
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 20:11
  • As long as who is not the subject of the relative clause, it can be omitted. This is true for which as well. In this case, it is not the subject of the relative clause (that's I), so it can be deleted. That's the same rule, because whom can't ever be the subject of a relative clause; but you don't have to understand or use whom, ever, to get this rule. Commented Jun 20, 2015 at 18:06

1 Answer 1


The grammaticality of your sentence is a good example of the mess people get into when they starting thinking about grammatical case in English, and why "whom" gives so much trouble.

There is such a rule, but it is not about whether the relative pronoun would be "who" or "whom": it is about whether or not the NP (noun phrase) which is the antecedent of the relative clause is the subject of that clause.


The man who came yesterday was French

you cannot omit "who", because "the man" is the subject of the relative clause.


The man (who(m)) I saw yesterday was French

you can, because "the man is the object of "I saw".

In simple cases there is only one clause introduced by the relative, so if the antecedent is not the subject of it, it will be in the objective case, and "whom" is appropriate, if we use it at all.

The man (whom) I saw yesterday was French

But the given example is complex, with an embedded clause [I hope [(that) he will come], so the antecedent "the man" is actually the subject of the (inner) embedded clause. Thus the structure is

I have (a friend (who I hope (he will come)))

where the 'he' is replaced by the 'who' (not 'whom') in the clause above, and then optionally omitted because neither it nor its containing clause is the subject of the relative clause.

It's worth noting that this is a case where people who do want to use "whom" sometimes get confused, and use "whom" 'incorrectly'.

  • This is related to what linguists call the that-trace effect. Relative clauses can be introduced by either a relative pronoun or "that" (complementizer): "This is the man who/that Mary loves." However, "that" is sometimes disallowed when it is directly adjacent to a subject gap: compare "Who do you think that/0 John loves" and "Who do you think *that/0 loves John." So the that-trace effect rules out using "that" in subject relatives, since it will be adjacent to the gap. On the other hand, when the relative is formed over a lower nominative case position, a null complementizer is licensed.
    – Aaron
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 3:42
  • @Aaron: what you write is correct, but I don't see that it is relevant to the question.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 11:08
  • @Colin Situations invoking the that-t effect often (but not always) overlap with situations in which the relative pronoun is in the nominative case. It sounds like this correlation has been extended to a categorical rule by the OP's source.
    – Aaron
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 15:15
  • @Aaron: I agree, but I think you are a bit confused. A relative clause can be introduced by "that", but when it is, "that" is a relative pronoun, not a complementiser, and is then subject to the same rule as "who(m)", viz optional deletion when it is not the subject. Complementiser deletion (which as you say is obligatory when the subject has been raised out of the clause) applies to the inner clause and confuses the OP's application of the "who" rule, as you say, but is not directly relevant to the question.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 8:13
  • @Colin "That" is never a relative pronoun. This can be seen in from historical stages of English (e.g. Chaucer), when relative clauses were introduced by both a relative pronoun and the complementizer "that," as well as the fact that in spontaneous speech people occasionally produce RP+that tokens, particularly when the extracted head of the relative is very long.
    – Aaron
    Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 18:42

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