This question came from a friend. It is from a college entrance exam for non-native English speakers.

Link the following sentences with "whose":

  • I was a small kid. My classmates laughed at me at the time.

Which of these is correct (if either)?

  1. I was a small kid whose classmates laughed at me at the time.
  2. I was a small kid whose classmates laughed at him at the time.
  • 1
    Unlike the other answerers, I take little issue with version #2. It could easily be rewritten as As a small kid whose classmates laughed at him all the time, I [had it rough growing up]. – user13141 Dec 17 '11 at 9:38

They both have their problems and both are best avoided. The first attempts to join the two clauses I was a small kid and My classmates laughed at me at the time. They make good sense individually, so you might conclude that joining them with whose would also make good sense. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Relative pronouns have antecedents, and the antecedent in (1) is undoubtedly a small kid. By the time we reach me in the sentence we’re set up to expect a reference to something other than the subject of the first clause, such as . . . laughed at everything I did.

The second attempts to join the two clauses I was a small kid and My classmates laughed at him at the time. They don’t make very good sense individually and joining them doesn’t improve matters. There’s again a mismatch between the first person subject of the main clause and the third person him in the subordinate clause. In certain contrived prose styles it might work, but for normal purposes it places too much of an interpretative burden on the reader.

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  • You give a good explanation why "whose" doesn't work in this case, which I couldn't do in my answer. I believe that since "whose" becomes the subject of the relative clause, the word it refers to can't be simultaneously the object of the verb. But I can't find references to this claim. – Irene Dec 17 '11 at 9:17
  • @Irene: I'd say, rather, that the subject of the relative clause was '(the) classmates', because it could be rewritten, admittedly in a somewhat stilted style, as 'the classmates of whom laughed . . .' – Barrie England Dec 17 '11 at 9:22
  • Thanks, that's a great explanation. It seems the question is the problem. – Sean Dec 17 '11 at 9:23
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    I tend to disagree with what you said about the 2nd form: it's perfectly clear to me. Having said that, it would serve better if it were "I was one of those small kids whose classmates laugh at him all the time". That detaches the subject of the sentence more completely from the subject in the subordinate clause. – JeffSahol Dec 17 '11 at 16:35
  • @JeffSahol: In your alternative, grammatical agreement would require the pronoun to be ‘them’ rather than ‘him’, but in either case there’s the same sort of mismatch as in the original. I don’t feel that strongly about it, but if a writer needs to make life as easy as possible for the reader, some other way of putting it might be preferable. It's really a matter of style rather than grammar. – Barrie England Dec 17 '11 at 17:05

The most natural way to join these sentences is with who, not with whose and change the second construct into Passive:

I was a small kid who was laughed at by his classmates at the time.

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  • 1
    +1 because it works, but I'm not quite sure why it does when the 'whose' clause with an active verb doesn't. – Barrie England Dec 17 '11 at 9:08
  • Agreed, that looks fine. I also tried offering alternative constructions, but as this was an actual exam question my friend wanted to know the best answer (I added 'if either' myself, because neither seems to work, but the actual exam asked for one or the other). – Sean Dec 17 '11 at 9:21
  • @Sean: With all due respect to the examiners, sometimes exam questions aren't well designed. I think the problem here lies in the question, not in your friend's (or your) lack of adequate knowledge. – Irene Dec 17 '11 at 9:25

Since the requirement is the use of whose, (2) is the only possible answer. The question has no scope for suggesting other alternatives in place of whose. Sometimes, questions are designed more to test the analytical skill of the candidate.

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