I'm learning the grammar of relative pronouns; I thought all relative pronouns should be at the start of a clause, and then I learned that pronouns can be put after a preposition, as in "The bed on which I was lying...", but again, I came across some other examples that showed that we can put more words before the relative pronoun, as in "The bed, the owner of which we had seen previously, ...", or "The bed, lying on which was a small cat, ..."

Does anyone know what are the rules? Can we put the relative pronoun anywhere in a clause? What about these sentences: "The bed, we had seen the owner of which previously, ..."?, are they grammatically correct?

  • 1
    This is yet another example of Pied-Piping. The rules are straighforward; you can see them in Ross's thesis. May 9, 2023 at 20:26
  • 1
    I believe Pied-Piping is what I'm looking for, it answers my question
    – Yong
    May 10, 2023 at 15:43

1 Answer 1


There is no exception to the rule saying that the relative pronoun is always in an element that is at the beginning of the clause (this element is often the pronoun itself).

(CoGEL § 6.32) Relative pronouns Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses, eg:

  • The book which you ordered last month has arrived. [1]

In [1], the relative pronoun which introduces the relative clause which you ordered last month. Relative pronouns differ from personal pronouns in that the element which contains or comprises the relative pronoun is always placed at the beginning of the clause, whether it is subject, complement, adverbial, postmodifier, prepositional complement, or object (as in [1]). […]

The bed, the owner of which we had seen previously, … (This is a correct construction, but it is reckoned with as stiffly formal and cumbersome (CoGEL).)

  • (Instead) The bed, of which we had previously seen the owner,

The bed, lying on which was a small cat, (This is incorrect)

  • (Instead) The bed, on which was lying a small cat
  • "The bed, lying on which was a small cat, (This is incorrect)" But why is that incorrect? OP wants to know why some of the relative pronoun's ancestors can be fronted along with it while others can't. (Also, neither of your "instead" versions seems to use the most natural word order.) May 9, 2023 at 19:47
  • @MarcInManhattan Because lying is not a noun phrase. Pied Piping extends to nouns and their modifying prepositional phrases, and recursively to their object nouns and prepositional phrases. But not to random constituents. May 9, 2023 at 20:53
  • Isn't it fair to say that the rule(s) for relative clauses have for some time been in flux? For one thing, the pronoun's omission is increasingly common. So "The book you ordered has arrived" is a common formation. Why? Well, it is obvious what it means so why bother? It is natural selection. "The bed a small cat was lying on ..." is not a problem. The bed example would surely be "The bed whose owner we had seen previously ..."
    – Tuffy
    May 9, 2023 at 21:38
  • @Tuffy I couldn't say that the omission of the relative pronoun "that" should be a fact supporting this would-be flux; it seems that I always found this omission in plenty. As for any other fact I can't see any, except a growing modern preference for "whose" over "of which". // There is a certain reluctance to use whose for non-personal antecedents, according to CoGEL, although (CoGEL again) sentences such as "The bed whose owner we had seen previously …" are quite frequently attested.
    – LPH
    May 9, 2023 at 21:59
  • @LPH Yes. You are much younger, I expect than I am. At school 60 or so years ago, I could not have got away with substituting 'that' for 'who' or 'which'. So I admit that the flux has already happened. But I do think it is fair to say that there is still further to go [hence the phrasing]. Also, but the way, it is still the case that the substitution of 'that' for relative pronouns is actually more common in American than in British English. This use of 'that' (sorry) is by many Brits regarded as more informal.
    – Tuffy
    May 9, 2023 at 22:11

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