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Previously, I thought that a relative pronoun becomes the subject of a relative clause when the relative clause modifies the subject of the main clause. In other words, it serves a double purpose. For example:

Rice, which still forms the staple diet of much of the world's population, grows best in hot, wet lands.

Here, "which" is both the connector and also subject of the relative clause.

However, in other cases, namely when the relative clause does not modify the subject of the main clause, the relative pronoun only becomes the connector of the main clause with the relative clause. For example:

I met the woman whom you mentioned.

Here, "whom" is the connector and "you" is the subject of the relative clause.

But then I encounter the following sentence:

Hail forms within large dense cumulonimbus clouds that develop on hot, humid summer days.

Here, the relative clause does not modify the subject of the main clause. However, "that" becomes the subject as well as the connector of the relative clause.

So, when does a relative pronoun become the subject of a relative clause and when does it not?

Edit:

Please note that this question is different from the one below:

That question asks whether the gap in the following is the object of think or the subject of might

  • anything you think might be good for me

The OP there makes no reference to the syntactic function of the anything noun phrase within the larger clause it occurs in.

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  • A relative pronoun can function as subject, direct object, or indirect object of the relative clause, and can modify any part of the main (matrix) clause. I think you need to re-learn the topic of relative clauses.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 27 at 16:33
  • clouds that develop is like a man that sings — where that is a relative pronoun and the subject of its relative clause. Commented Mar 27 at 22:05
  • @alphabet No. That's about a relative NP being the subject of a clause embedded within a relative clause: e.g. the girl [they think [ __ stole the diamonds]] and whether that gap is the object of think or the subject - where OP was confused because a zero relative is possible (Because the rules for omitting relative NPs is usually badly stated). The confusion here is completely different, and now has a clear answer. Any chance you could retract your close vote, please, old bean? Commented Mar 28 at 8:05
  • Answered at 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.' OR 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone'?: < ... when counteraction occurs due to apocopation, the relative pronoun stays loyal to the relative clause. ... Examples: 'I am a person who likes apples.' (nominative because 'who' is the subject of 'likes' in the relative clause) 'I am a person whom apples please.' (accusative because 'whom' is the object of 'please' in the relative clause) ... > Commented Mar 28 at 11:47
  • @Dirga I think it's better to say that the relativised element is anaphorically linked to an antecedent from which it derives its interpretation. This gives a clearer picture than calling it a connector. Note that the function of the relative pronoun is independent of the function of the antecedent. For example, in "The film [which I needed] is out of stock", "the film" is subject of the matrix clause and the relativised element ("which") is object of "needed" in the relative clause.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 28 at 13:11

1 Answer 1

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Its function in the relative clause is completely independent of its antecedent in the main clause. Any clause, whether relative or not, has at least a subject and predicate. Thus, the pronoun can hold any position a noun phrase could regularly take in a clause. It is never just a “connector.” It takes the place of a NP and thus must function in the same way.

Isolate the relative clause and see what function the pronoun performs within it. So if it is the agent performing the verb within the clause, it is the subject; if the action is done to or received by it, it is the direct object (in active constructions; in passive the subject would be on the receiving end); if it follows a preposition, it is the object of the prep; etc. Same rules you would apply to any other clause.

In

Rice, which still forms the staple diet of much of the world's population, grows best in hot, wet lands.

which is the subject of forms.

In

I met the woman whom you mentioned.

whom is the object of mentioned.

In

Hail forms within large dense cumulonimbus clouds that develop on hot, humid summer days.

that, if considered a pronoun, is the subject of develop. (Now, grammarians will disagree and it can be argued that that is a subordinator and not a pronoun, but I won’t get into it here. Read this thread for further detail and justification on the grammar there.)

Still, you can see that the pronoun’s role within the relative clause has nothing to do with whether its antecedent is a subject, object, what have you.

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  • @Araucaria-Him Thanks for catching that. I should’ve been clearer in my answer; I’ve updated it now.
    – GrammarCop
    Commented Mar 28 at 11:00
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    @GrammarCop Please remember that many of the members here are linguists or experienced grammarians. Claiming that "that" is a relative pronoun is controversial to say the least. Many people (including me) reject that idea, preferring to classify it as a subordinator (in accordance with CGEL).
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 28 at 11:18
  • Thanks! have a subordinate niggle though: If it is the agent doing the verb within the clause, it is the subject; if the action is done to it, it is the direct object <--That's ok for a fast and dirty heuristic when a schoolkid first hears about subjects and objects etc, but is no good once they get to their second week! Consider: She survived her mother by twenty years or She survived the hurricane or They survived the attack or He received a glancing blow to the chin or He was battered by the storm and so on and so forth. Can you help out with that one too? Commented Mar 28 at 13:59
  • @BillJ My answer was originally written with the intent of addressing the misunderstanding in the question, but I should’ve remembered the disagreement surrounding that. I’ve updated it accordingly.
    – GrammarCop
    Commented Mar 28 at 21:27
  • @Araucaria-Him I’ll admit I may have been purposely “fast and dirty” with my original answer; I had assumed those on this forum would’ve internalized the identification of subject, object, etc. I have updated it to be slightly more thorough but without too much verbiage. Is this sufficient, or should I address it further?
    – GrammarCop
    Commented Mar 28 at 21:49

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