That was about the only title I could think of that accurately describes the problem.

The situation is whenever you go somewhere and there are people/things there that you don't know. Instead of saying something like "I went there and there were people that I didn't know" or "I didn't know anybody who was there", some people try to combine the sentences "There were people there that I didn't know" and "I didn't even know who they were" for emphasis. The only thing wrong with that is that we run into a problem:

"There were people there that I didn't even know who they were."

"There were people there that I didn't even know who were."

The first sentence has an unnecessary "they" and the second one removes it but it sounds awkward.

What's the best way to say this?

  • If you google "There were people there that I didn't even know who they were" (with quotes) you get absolutely 0 results. So who exactly is trying to combine those sentences?
    – mfoy_
    Jul 20, 2015 at 18:53
  • 1
    Who is combining the sentences is irrelevant, it's just something that I've heard people do and have probably done myself. What I'm asking is what the best way is to go about combining the two sentences. Jul 20, 2015 at 18:58
  • 6
    Congratulations! You've just rediscovered the Complex Noun Phrase Constraint, one of the Ross Constraints. Jul 20, 2015 at 19:15
  • 2
    The way the phrases are nested obscures the meaning. After the fifth reading of the OP, this astute reader finally recognized: "I didn't even know some of the people who were there." Of course, @JohnLawler is intimately familiar with the issue and calls it by name :-)
    – ScotM
    Jul 20, 2015 at 19:22
  • 1
    @Fumble I’d say in French the pronoun is absolutely required. I suspect the way the whole sentence just implodes and collapses in my head if I try to make a non-resumptive version in French must be similar to how it feels to you in English. It’s probably even rarer in French that the situation arises, but I did manage to find at least one exact cognate (look for user AK-13110): « j'étais avec 3 collègue, la cousine d'un et une fille que je ne sais pas qui c'était ». Jul 21, 2015 at 20:42

5 Answers 5


It's often helpful, when sentences are getting messy like this, to replace a complicated phrase-verb with a more straightforward verb. The phrase-verb that's causing the problem is "(to) know who (someone) is" - we can replace it with the simpler verb "(to) identify (someone)". So our sentence becomes: "there were people there whom I couldn't even identify".

Alternately, because your basic goal is to describe the people, you can toss out the verb construction all together and just use an adjective! Replace "who I didn't know who they were" with "who were unidentifiable". Or, for something a little more casual, perhaps "some of the people there were a total mystery to me".


There were people there whom I didn’t even know.

  • Well, this is certainly the best way to say that, but could you explain why this is so? Or why the OP's examples sound awkward? I'm not saying I can, I believe this is a hard question to answer fully.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 21, 2015 at 10:07
  • Sentences that violate a Ross constraint are very ungrammatical. Why the Ross constraints exist, and why they have this force, is about like why neutrons exist; very very hard to explain, and you need extra training to understand the explanation. But that's the reason, like it or not. And I'll try anyway. Put very simply, when a word shows up in an unexpected place (like who in a Who is he?) the listener has to figure out somehow where it came from in order to parse the question. But as you get farther away, it's harder to do, and island boundaries are limits on this process. Jul 21, 2015 at 13:38
  • 1
    I am confused. I thought the meaning of your first sentence was "I didn't even recognize some of the people there." That is, not only did you not know them, you had no idea who they were. Your second sentence gave me a headache, and I still don't understand it.
    – ab2
    Jul 21, 2015 at 17:29
  • What @ab2 said. The "grammatical" revised version here (...whom I didn’t even know) doesn't actually mean the same as OP's original (neither of which is grammatical, but I and most others would sooner put up with OP's first version than the second). There's a clear difference between knowing someone (being personally acquainted with them - friends, etc.), and knowing who they are (celebrities and others you've heard about, but don't actually know, for example). Jul 21, 2015 at 20:40
  • the OP's original sentences sound wrong because of the who were at the end. It's highly unusual to end a sentence on a verb (were). The first sentence does not have an unnecessary they, it is correct despite being clumsy; the second sentence does not really make sense. Another alternative is to say There were people I didn't know there which gives a bit less emphasis, the original suggests that the person thought they should have known the people.
    – Mousey
    Aug 9, 2015 at 0:26

This is just a bad idea for a sentence. Not only as John Lawler points out due to the unfortunate marble gargling of a Ross Constraint, but because the meaning might not come across as you intended.

“There were people there that I didn't even know who were”

You described your desire to express:

  • There were people there.
  • I did not know any of the people there.

What I actually read was:

  • There were people there.
  • Of the people who were there, some I did not know would be there.
  • or: I was not aware of every person who was there.

My reading is that the "that" refers to "the fact that people would be/were there", not to "the people". That is to say I took you to be telling me that you were unaware of their presence at the place, not that you weren't their acquaintance.

So, I'd dump the whole thing. Instead, I'd pick from something like:

  1. There were people there I didn't recognize.
  2. There were people there I was surprised to see.
  3. There were more people there than I had the chance to meet.

You could also choose a more specific or colorful variant that emphasizes what you're really trying to say to your audience. For example:

  1. There were even people there that I'd never met before.
  2. There were so many people there, I have no clue who might have also been in the room!
  3. There were people there I certainly hadn't expected to see at all.
  4. etc.
  • 3
    I don’t see Joey describing a desire to express “I did not know any of the people there”—rather, though the description is a bit convoluted, it looks to me like he “Some of the people who were there I did not know”. Also, I cannot in any possible way understand the sentence the way you do. In “There were people there that…”, the antecedent of that is quite unambiguously people to me; if it were the whole sentence, you would have to use which instead of that. And “I didn’t even know who (they) were” specifically emphasises that we’re talking identity, not presence. Jul 21, 2015 at 17:37
  • What @Janus said. There's no ambiguity involved, simply the proglem that English grammar doesn't support the kind of "complex sentence" being aimed at. Jul 21, 2015 at 20:13

That IS a really bad idea for a sentence...to me, it seems to be missing its ending: There were people there that you didn't even know who were WHAT? It's not a sentence.

I think you want to express that: Even though there are always various people present at these places, there is never anybody amongst them that you know personally. So you could say:

There were people there, but I didn't know any of them. or There were people there, but there wasn't anybody I know. or I saw a bunch of people, but I didn't see anybody I knew.


There were people there that I didn't know.

  • OP has already said that he wants suggestions of an emphasised form of this. Aug 30, 2015 at 22:48

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.