I have a complicated question to ask you.

I wrote a composition and there was a sentence like this:

[...] then he saw the brother he thought was dead

But then my teacher corrected me by adding he before the verb was, that is, according to her, the correct would be

[...] then he saw the brother he thought he was dead

She didn't explain me why, and another teacher of mine said it's because there are two clauses in this sentence... I didn't quite get it at ALL!

Please, help me.

  • 3
    Explain me is ungrammatical; it should be explain to me. The full sentence is Then he saw the brother who he thought was dead. The subject of dead is the brother, but that has been changed to who, and moved up to introduce the relative clause who he thought was dead that modifies the brother. So it's missing, but only because who, like all relative pronouns, is optional when it is not the subject of the relative clause. Who in this case is the subject of one subordinate clause, but is not the subject of the relative clause itself. So it's optional. Sep 16, 2015 at 20:41
  • @JohnLawler Isn't the sentence ambiguous still? Who is doing the thinking? Wouldn't it be better to replace one of the hes with a name? This is a problem I have seen in New testament studies where the word "he" is used for long stretches and it's not always clear who the "he" is referring to. Sep 17, 2015 at 1:03
  • 3
    He is doing seeing and thinking. Being dead was not done by anybody. Your teacher was wrong to insert a he; they were probly confused with who or that, both of which are pronouns too. The sentence with the added he instead of who or that is ungrammatical. The sentence is OK as it stands. Sep 17, 2015 at 1:16

2 Answers 2


The sentence suggested by your teacher is incorrect. This creates two independent clauses pushed together without any conjunction. A comma cannot fix this because it will create a comma splice, "Then he saw the brother, he thought he was dead." Think of this sentence: "Then he ate the cake, he enjoyed it very much." People make the mistake of joining these two sentences with a comma because they think of a comma as "a speaking pause," and in spoken language someone would say these two sentences and pause between them. But in written language it doesn't work that way.

A comma could fix this (as well as a dash) by changing the last independent clause thus: "Then he saw the brother, the brother thought dead." I would use a dash: "Then he saw the brother--the brother thought dead." I would actually change the sentence to make it more clear: "Then he saw the brother believed to be dead." For the reasons John Lawler pointed out, it is not necessary to add "who was" in the sentence. That said, I still might add the "who was." Other readers can weigh in on that clarity issue.

The sentence is ambiguous, though. WHO thought he was dead? Was it the speaker of the sentence, or another he? Grammatically, as Professor Lawler pointed out it is clear, however I think readers might wonder. (I think that's what your teacher was thinking.) "Then John saw the brother Bob thought was dead." (to add names to help you see the point I'm making.) I think if you change "thought" to "believe" it might be better: "Then he saw the brother he believed was dead."

Speaking as a teacher, I have marked things on student papers, and then had students come back and ask "Why did you mark this wrong?" Most of the time, I was correct. However there have been times when I look and cannot see why I marked something wrong, or see that I was not considering something else. I always correct my error and say "I'm sorry. You were correct." Politely ask your teacher, "Can you help me understand why this is incorrect?" I don't know your cultural background, so possibly this is not acceptable. Remember, teachers are guides. They are not perfect. If they are good, then they realize they are students just as much as the students they teach.


Then he saw the brother he thought was dead.

That is possible. You could make it clearer as follows:

Then he saw the brother he had thought was dead.

This means that until he saw his brother he falsely believed he was dead but now he realizes his brother is alive.

Then he saw the brother he thought he was dead.

That is incorrect. To correct it you could say:

Then he saw the brother. He thought he was dead.

However that has a different meaning. 1. It means that he saw someone else's brother (or possibly a monk) 2. it means that he looked at the brother and at that moment decided he was dead.

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