I don't want to do anything you think might be good for me.

This is something he said was good for me.

In the first sentence, the relative pronoun between anything and you think is omitted as it is an object. But, my concern is, might be good for me needs a relative pronoun to be its subject, and there's no relative pronoun in the sentence. Why? Is there any grammar rule that can explain this? The same question goes for the second sentence.

My theory is, that the omitted relative pronoun between anything and you think also acts as the subject of might be good for me even though it is omitted. But still, I don't know if this is grammatical and I've never seen any explanation about this type of construction in my grammar books.


2 Answers 2


[1] I don't want to do anything you think [ ___ might be good for me].

[2] This is something he said [ ___ was good for me].

No, it can't be both subject and object simultaneously.

Your examples are both non-WH relatives, and since the subordinator "that" is omitted, they are sometimes called 'bare' relatives.

In both cases the missing relativised element (which we can call 'R') is not object but is located within a content clause inside the relative clause, where it is functioning as a subject. The ___ notation indicates the covert presence of the R element.

In [1] R is subject of the embedded "might" clause functioning as complement of "think", and has "anything" as antecedent. We understand that anything might be good for me.

In [2] R is subject of the embedded "was" clause functioning as complement of "said" and has "something" as antecedent. We understand that "something" was good for me

  • Are you suggesting the said 'R' element is not a relative pronoun?
    – Sam
    Jun 14, 2020 at 10:45
  • @Sam Because gap is always used to mark the functional position of the missing relativised element, which in your examples is subject of an embedded content clause. You have to relealise that relative clauses are the most complex of all finite subordinate clauses, and the embedding of a content clause within a relative clause makes things even more tricky to analyse.
    – BillJ
    Jun 14, 2020 at 10:49
  • @Sam Even in a more elementary relative clause where there is a relative pronoun present, ___ is still used to mark the function position of R if it is not the subject of the relative clause, e.g. "This is the book which she recommended ___", where ___ marks the functional position of R (i.e. object of "recommended"), which has "book" as antecedent.
    – BillJ
    Jun 14, 2020 at 10:56
  • I was re-reviewing this topic. I noticed I hadn't asked you two important questions: What is the terminology of omitting a relative pronoun functioning as a subject? And, is it grammatically wrong if we put a relative pronoun in the position of the __ notation in either of my sentences?
    – Sam
    Jul 7, 2020 at 9:47
  • Do you mean in the relative clause itself or in the embedded content clause?
    – BillJ
    Jul 7, 2020 at 9:59

What is happening here is that the relative pronoun is in a nested clause, rather than in the 'topmost' relative clause. That is why it is difficult to analyse, and why it might behave in a way that is slightly different from what one may be used to.

A basic relative clause:

This is the man whom I saw.

Main clause: this is the man

Relative clause: whom I saw

Whom is the object of saw in the relative clause. In the main clause, the relative clause is no full constituent (it doesn't fulfil a role in the main clause except as an attribute to man).

If you extract the relative clause from the main clause and turn it into a second main clause, you get this:

This is the man. I saw him.

The relative pronoun is replaced with a personal pronoun. In a normal main clause, the object would come after the verb, as here; but, in a relative clause, the relative pronoun is normally moved to the beginning of the relative clause. That is why we had the man whom... in the original example. Without this move, which is standard in (most? all?) Indo-European languages, it would be difficult to see where the relative clause begins, which in turn makes a sentence harder to parse.

Now a nested example, but let's begin with two main clauses:

I saw the man. I think he was mad.

The pronoun he refers back to a constituent in the first clause (man), so that is what we will replace with that/who. Notice that he is the subject of the subordinate clause he was mad; this clause is subordinate to I think (it is nested within it).

*I saw the man I think who was mad.

We have replaced the subject he with a relative pronoun who. But this doesn't sound right: we want the relative pronoun to move to the beginning of the entire clause that used to be the second main clause (but is now the upper relative clause). So we move who:

I saw the man who I think was mad.

So the relative pronoun is still subject, but it was moved out of the inner clause.

Now on to your examples.

I don't want to do anything you think might be good for me.

I can split this into two main clauses (there will be a slight change in meaning, which is unavoidable, because it was a restricting relative clause):

I don't want to do anything. You think this might be good for me.

Turning it into a relative clause:

*I don't want to do anything you think which might be good for me.

I chose which, because that has several different functions, such as a conjunction, which would have made it more confusing. Now we move the relative pronoun to the left:

I don't want to do anything which you think might be good for me.

You can use which and that almost interchangeably in this example. One feature of that is that it can be omitted. You probably learned a rule that that can only be omitted when it is object; but, in this case, it is subject, and yet it can still be omitted. The rule should probably be fine-tuned.

If you replace which with that, you can omit it here, and you arrive at your original sentence.

I don't see any relation between you think and the relative pronoun: they don't interact, as far as I can tell, and so the pronoun is not the object of think.

  • It's not actually nesting but embedding (nesting is something else). In the OP's examples the relativised element is located within an embedded content clause ("might be good for you" / "was good for me".
    – BillJ
    Jun 12, 2020 at 12:17
  • 1
    @BillJ: We just use different terminology. Jun 12, 2020 at 13:30
  • 1
    @Sam: I would say that becomes the object of the verb know, in the internal clause you think you know [something] about human evolution; something is replaced with the relative pronoun, which is then moved to the beginning of the full relative clause, that you think you know [] about human evolution. The reason that it needs to go so far back is that you cannot move the nested clause you know [something] out of the clause that is is a constituent of: it is the object of think. So all of that together becomes the relative clause, even though the relative pronoun is nested inside. Jun 15, 2020 at 20:09
  • 1
    @Sam: The thing that needs to go so far back is the thing that is moved, i.e. the relative pronoun. The clauses themselves don't move otherwise. Jun 18, 2020 at 17:25
  • 1
    @Sam: I suggest that you create a new question. You can put a link to the question here. Jun 22, 2020 at 20:23

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