This question arose from why sentence #1 is correct and why sentence #2 is incorrect -

I pity those who lost their money in gambling.

I pity them who lost their money in gambling.

I have asked the question in ELL forum, as well as in Linguistics forum.

But the answers their made me more confused.


Jlawler's comment contains the direct answer to the question. Definite personal pronouns (I/me, you, he/him, she/her, it, we/us, they/them) cannot take a restrictive modifier. In other words, they cannot take a dependent that narrows the set of entities that they denote. This trait of personal pronouns underlies their use as test words for constituent structure. For example:

 (a)  The man with the hat knows the woman with the scarf.

 (b)  He knows her. 

 (c) *He with the hat knows her with the scarf.

Sentence (a) is the starting sentence. Sentence (b) shows proform substitution; the personal pronouns he and her have been substituted in for the noun phrases the man with the hat and the woman with the scarf. Based on the acceptability of sentence (b), one concludes that both the man with the hat and the woman with the scarf are constituents. Definite pronouns such as he and her (and them) take the place of constituents, in this case of complete noun phrases.

The unacceptability of sentence (c) reveals that the strings the man and the woman in (a) are not constituents. In other words, the definite personal pronouns he and her cannot take dependents (=modifiers), since they necessarily replace an entire noun phrase. This fact explains why them who lost their money in the question is bad English. The relative clause who lost money is a postdependent (=postmodifier), and as such it cannot modify them (because them as a definite personal pronoun cannot be modified).

The plural demonstrative pronouns (these and those) behave differently. They can take postdepndents (=postmodifiers, i.e. a modifier that follows them), e.g

 (d)  These with hats know those with scarves. 

This is simply a trait of the plural demonstrative pronouns (these and those) -- there is no good explanation why plural demonstrative pronouns behave differently than definite personal pronouns; they simply do. Note that the plural demonstrative pronouns also behave differently than the singular demonstrative pronouns in this regard, e.g.

 (e)  *This with a hat knows that with a scarf.

Singular demonstrative pronouns (this and that) are behaving like the definite personal pronouns; they cannot take dependents.

The combination plural demonstrative pronoun + restrictive relative clause can actually be viewed as a particular construction in English and related languages. That is, it is a combination that occurs relatively frequently and has therefore been lexicalized. German has a very similar construction, e.g.

 (f) Diejenigen mit einem Hut kennen diejenigen mit einem Schal. 
     those      with  a   hat  know     those   with  a   scarf.

By acknowledging that one has a particular construction, one is in a sense admitting that there is no real grammatical "explanation" for the phenomenon. It simply exists.

Finally, note that there are certain apparent exceptions to the principles mentioned above. There are uses of personal pronouns that actually allow modification, e.g.

 (g) He who studies a lot gets a good grade. 

In this example, the personal pronoun he is not referring directly to a specific entity, which means it is not definite; it is, rather, being used as an indefinite pronoun; it means 'the one, anyone', e.g. Anyone who studies a lot gets a good grade.


Reading this answer make the following sentence consider wrong -

It is she who stood second in class.

So another person came up with another rule -


Nominative personal pronouns can be modified by relative clauseas just like demonstrative pronouns; it's the objective personal pronouns that can't. He who, she who, they who, you who are all grammatical, if archaic. Him who, her who, them who, however, aren't.


Now this rule create a conflict with the rule 1 I quoted first. In the first rule it says - He with the hat knows her with the scarf - sentence is wrong, but if we consider the second rule then this particular sentence should be correct.

Another problem with the second rule is that it makes the following sentence incorrect -

The action was performed by her who is the secretary of XYZ company.

So another rule came in picture -


"Them," combined with the "who," has to be used with a preposition like "to," "from," or "with."

"I pity them," by itself, is a grammatically correct sentence, but when you connect the dependent clause with "who," it is no longer correct.

Now I am really confused. Can anyone here please help?

  • These sound natural: I pity those people who lost their money in gambling (if no people have not been mentioned before) // I pity those who lost their money in gambling (if this is a subset of people already mentioned). Using the version without 'people' when no people have been mentioned previously uses a very formal register. //// I pity them who lost their money in gambling sounds 400 years out of date. Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 9:56
  • But ... "The action was performed by her who is the secretary of XYZ company" is wrong. At least it sounds so to me. Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 11:49
  • @PeterShor Someone say it's correct and someone say it's wrong. I am really confused. I want to know the grammatical explanation so that I wont make any mistake in using dependent clauses after pronouns. Thank you in advance. Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 12:09
  • My first proposal would be to forget Rule 2 and Rule 3, and use Rule 1 with the additional rule that constructions with an existential "it" like "it was he who ..." are grammatical. But quite likely somebody will come up with an example showing that this isn't completely right. Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 12:46
  • @PeterShor Thanks Peter. Another confusion - if in the sentence "The action was performed by her who was the secretary of XYZ company", the restrictive dependent clause is replaced by a non-restrictive dependent clause, will it be correct sentence? Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 13:13

1 Answer 1


I interpret

1) "I pity them who lost their money in gambling"

as a reduction of

2) "I pity them -- those who lost their money in gambling"

or, with a minor variation of punctuation,

3) I pity them, those who lost their money in gambling.

Your query sentence 1) may not be regarded as Standard English written usage, but I think it's perfectly acceptable in conversation. It's a question of the register being used.

  • I would rather call it archaic than conversational, using who in the sense “they who” or “whoever”. I could imagine someone like Tolkien, with his bombastic writing style, writing something like, “Above all others we honour them, who have faced the evil wrath of Sauron and not faltered”. As Erik indirectly says, that’s not them who (that would be those who), but rather them on its own, and then a relative clause beginning with a much more independent who meaning itself “those who”. Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 9:44
  • @medica - With a comma, as depicted in my sentence 3) above, I'd regard it as borderline acceptable in a non-formal written context (e.g. a personal letter); without a comma, the construction is liable to confuse and is thus best avoided. I regard correctness as being a less useful concept than appropriateness for this kind of situation, because different contexts of usage, register and audience -- as well as whether we are considering speech or the written word -- have significant implications for acceptability.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 9:45
  • @medica I think, to quote JL, one has to say 'It's grammatical, but that's the only good thing you can say about it'. It's an archaic construction: God made him who had no sin to be sin (2 Corinthians 5:21, N(!?)IV). Holman updates to 'the One'. Fowler gives an example of the form (*)“Do not follow he who breaks the law.” saying (I’m sure correctly) that the correct version is “Do not follow him who breaks the law.” Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 10:02
  • @EdwinAshworth - I think I read too much of the above. I agree with Do not follow him who breaks the law. But I can't understand Do not follow them who break the law. I clearly need more schooling. As for 2 Cor 5:21, there are so many translations of that, and they differ. JL would really be a good one for that (Do you know Koine Greek? I don't.) Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 10:04
  • @medica - Not a problem for me. You've done nothing that requires an apology.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 10:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.