I'm confused about two particular examples where "who" is used as a relative pronoun:

...people who I have no idea who are.
...people who I have no idea who they are.

...people who we have no idea what their intentions are.

  1. What is the correct phrasing for these two examples? Also, is it okay to drop "who"?

  2. I've seen instances of example-1 on various webpages; in fact, a quick google search for "who I have no idea who they are" gave 97,200 hits. So, is it acceptable in colloquial usage regardless of whether it is grammatically correct or not?


  • 1
    These are attempts to form relative clauses in structures where they're ungrammatical, because they violate a Ross Constraint. Mar 13, 2015 at 14:54
  • @JohnLawler Is that particular constraint one of the ones that Ross identified? (PS, I read your Mich Ross notes, which are very helpful) Mar 13, 2015 at 22:34
  • 1
    Yes, relative clauses are islands (the Complex Noun Phrase Constraint), and Relativization is a rule that can extract from indefinitely many clauses down (the language which he wants to try to begin to learn ... this year), so it's bound by the CNPC. That has the effect of not allowing a relative clause from inside another relative clause, which is what these are. Mar 13, 2015 at 22:44

3 Answers 3


From chompchomp; Robin L Simmons [slightly adjusted]

The Relative Clause

Recognize a relative clause when you see one.

A relative clause—also called an adjective or adjectival clause—will meet three requirements.

First, it will contain a subject and verb.

Next, it will begin with a relative pronoun [who, whom, whose, that, or which] or a relative adverb [when, where, or why].

Finally, it will function as an adjective, answering the questions What kind? How many? or Which one?

The relative clause will follow one of these two patterns:

Relative Pronoun or Adverb + Subject + Verb

Relative Pronoun as Subject + Verb

[possibly + say adverbials]

eg 'which Francine did not accept'

'that dangled from the ceiling'

Here, all of 'who I have no idea who are.', 'who I have no idea who they are.', and 'who we have no idea what their intentions are.' fail the tests. There is an attempt to nest relative, and free relative (or embedded question) clauses. 'who I know' or 'who I don't know' are of the correct form (Relative Pronoun + Subject + Verb).

The constructions here are at best highly colloquial. I'm tempted to say unacceptable to many anglophones.

  • That's a good one, cheers. I think "...people who I have no idea who are" would be the one if I had to choose between the two; at least the relative pronoun (who) stands for the subjective pronoun (they), referring to "people".
    – detic
    Mar 13, 2015 at 11:01
  • The close rewrites are not wonderful: 'People about the identities of whom I have no idea'. A more thorough overhaul might be preferred: '[I'm often contacted by people.] I have no idea about who most of these people are.' Mar 13, 2015 at 11:06
  • much appreciated.
    – detic
    Mar 13, 2015 at 11:10
  • @EdwinAshworth I don't really see how the OP's first and third examples don't meet the criteria. Mar 14, 2015 at 11:30
  • @EdwinAshworth Agreed, but the second (interrogative) clause is part of the noun phrase headed by idea, so the higher relative clause still has Pronoun plus subject (plus object), so I don't quite understand why it is badly formed according to the Simmons rules? Mar 14, 2015 at 20:24
  1. ...people who I have no idea who are.
  2. ...people who I have no idea who they are.

This is an example of a violation of what is sometimes called an ISLAND CONSTRAINT.

Often, a wh- word at the beginning of a relative clause or question can refer to an entity belonging to a clause much further away in the sentence structure:

  • Who(i) did [Bob say [that Mary knew [that John had kissed ____(i) ]]] ?
  • I know the girl who(i) [Bob said [Mary knew [that John had kissed ____(i) ]]].

However, there are some types of environment where we cannot have an antecedent gap for an earlier wh- word (another way of thinking about this is that you cannot extract a wh- word from this environment). These restrictions are commonly known as island constraints after a famous thesis by Ross (1967).

The Original Poster's examples in particular violate a wh- island constraint. This is some of what the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics has to say about wh island constraints:

Another such island constraint is the wh island constraint, which rules out extractions from wh clauses (clauses introduced by wh elements). Extraction from nonfinite wh clauses (as in Examples (11a) and (11b)) is not totally unacceptable, but extraction from finite wh clauses (as in Examples (12a) and (12b)) is much worse:

(11a)The librarian wondered [whether to put that book on the shelf].

(11b)?Which book did the librarian wonder [whether to put ____ on the shelf]?

(12a)I wondered [whether the librarian put that book on the shelf].

(12b)*Which book did you wonder [whether the librarian put ____ on the shelf]?

Notice that in English relative clauses, there must normally be a gap in the relative clause where we would expect the item represented by the wh- word to be. If speakers embark upon an illicit wh movement like this, they will often try to repair it by sticking a resumptive pronoun in where we expect the gap to be. So someone embarking upon (12b) might try to repair it as they went along like this:

12c *Which book did you wonder [whether the librarian put it on the shelf]?

(12b) is the equivalent of the Original Poster's example (1). The Original Poster's second example is a type of repaired sentence as in (12c). Neither would be considered perfectly grammatical by most speakers of standard Englishes.

The only way to make the Original Poster's examples grammatical is to rephrase them entirely.

  • 1
    +1. This provides perhaps a good opportunity to bring up this line "Where they strung up a man they say murdered three" in the song The hanging tree. If you listen to the lyrics, it seems a "who" is getting (naturally?) inserted into "Where they strung up a man they say who murdered three". Or maybe this is unrelated. :)
    – F.E.
    Mar 13, 2015 at 19:43
  • 1
    @F.E. I'm wondering if they say is being interpreted as a parenthetical supplement there by the singer. Compare Where they strung up a man who murdered three, they say or Where they say they strung up a man who murdered three. What d'you think? Mar 14, 2015 at 11:55
  • 1
    @Araucaria I had been assuming that the stringing up the man was a given (since it is the dead man that's talking), and so had assumed the "they say" bit to refer to other people's claim that he murdered three. What I had thought might be interesting to consider was that the "where" could itself be the start of a relative clause: e.g. "the tree/place where they strung up …" It seems that the no "who" version doesn't really work for me, and that a "who" needs to be inserted, either after "man" or as a resumptive pronoun before "murdered" as done in the vocals (imo).
    – F.E.
    Mar 14, 2015 at 17:23
  • 1
    @F.E. Hmm let me have a think. You can read a lot of absolute guff being started to be talked about in this post here. It's interesting because, of course, it involves a malformed genuine existential passive construction or a very marked normal existential construction. Of course, this goes right to the heart of the enormous argument between Chomsky and Postal about the status of the clause/raised object and catenative complement in "John believes the police to have arrested the thief" Mar 14, 2015 at 17:35
  • 1
    @F.E. "Are you coming to the tree where they strung up a man they say who murdered three." doesn't work for me even if there's a resumptive pronoun, or in fact especially if there's a resumptive pronoun, because there doesn't seem to be a main verb in the lowest clause "a man who murdered three" did what? However, if the original's marginal it might be a faulty repair of "are you coming to the tree where they hung up a man [who] they say he murdered three" where he would be a resumptive pronoun - Erm, or it kinda looks like that to me right now ... :) What d'you think? Mar 14, 2015 at 18:01

You can use "that" as a synonym for who/which in this case. So:

1. ...people that I have no idea who they are.


2. ...people that we have no idea what their intentions are.

I think "...people who I have no idea who are." is incorrect as you need still need a subject for the sub-sentence.

  • Thanks for the reply. Could you please clarify what "who" replaces in these sentences; in relative clauses, relative pronouns replace subject pronouns (he/she/it/they...), right?. And, how can each example be divided into two separate sentences (without getting combined with a relative clause)? Thanks!
    – detic
    Mar 13, 2015 at 8:55
  • it replaces "people". For the second question, I believe it can be written as this: > "I saw a lot of people there. I don't know who they are." But it's quite ugly. A compound sentence is better in this case. Mar 13, 2015 at 9:00
  • I saw a man who was holding an umbrella => I saw a man + he was holding an umbrella (so "who" replaced "he").. Similarly, I saw pictures of people that I have no idea who they are => I saw pictures of people + I have no idea who they (or those people) are.. it seems that "who" doesn't replace anything. am I wrong?
    – detic
    Mar 13, 2015 at 9:02

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