Consider the following usages of relative pronouns:

  1. The lecturer introduces a study in which participants were asked to choose one attractive picture.
  2. At the university I met famous professors, many of whom were fluent English speakers.

One of my grammar textbooks says that these usages are bookish.

The question is whether I sound strange if I use relative pronouns in these ways in speech (I have TOEFL speaking section in mind).

This may not be a relative pronoun technically, but people sometimes write I have no pen with which to write letters instead of I have no pen to write letters with. Is the former expression too formal to be used in speech?

  • With respect to your last question, both would be very unusual in speech of any degree of formality. Most people would say I don't have a pen to write my letters with. Sep 11, 2012 at 22:29
  • @StoneyB: Then, my question becomes: is it too formal to say I do not have a pen with which to write my letters instead? Some argue this style (a preposition, a rel. pron and a infinitive) is better because in this way the preposition with doesn't have to sit at the end with no object after it. Indeed, if my letters were a longer expression, I might have hard time discovering what object the preposition governs.
    – Pteromys
    Sep 12, 2012 at 0:31
  • My counter-question is Too formal for what? A presentation to a conference or seminar? No. A classroom discussion? Not really. A conversation with fellow-students? Perhaps, but you won't be misunderstood. A conversation with a 14-year-old? She'll giggle. A conversation with a 6-year-old? He'll gape and look confused. A party with your peers a keg or so in? They'll be rolling on the floor...but probably so will you. Sep 12, 2012 at 0:46
  • @StoneyB A more common informal rendition would be I have no pen to write letters. In fact, it probalby would be either I don't have a pen to write letters or I don't have a pen to write with.
    – bib
    Sep 12, 2012 at 2:44
  • @bib Agreed - but I was trying to preserve as much as I could of the content of OP's sample. Sep 12, 2012 at 12:11

1 Answer 1


You use English within a variety of discourse communities, each with its own standards and folkways. In some of those communities—US teenagers, for instance—any use of relative pronouns, much less use of relative pronouns as the object of prepositions, is indeed likely to mark you as "bookish".

In other communities, however—students of formal logic, for instance—such uses are not only unremarkable but positively desirable: they mark you as "educated" and your discourse as "considered".

So the question is really How do you wish to be perceived by each of those communities? If it is important to you to appear hip among the young, you will cultivate their dialect, and eschew relative pronouns; if you wish to be well-regarded among scholars, you will cultivate their dialect, and embrace relative pronouns, taking care to place them after the prepositions of which they are the objects.

You may of course cultivate multiple dialects, for all the communities you work with; but that's going to take a lot of your time and energy. It is really much easier to decide who you actually are (or want to be), and construct just one idiolect which reflects that identity. Your energies may thus be better spent communicating your ideas intelligibly; and anybody you want to associate with will accept you for who you are.

  • Though you say it is a speech community, what you have described is a discourse community. The difference is that a speech community is something you are born into, while a discourse community is something you enter through a hobby, job, interests, etc. Sep 11, 2012 at 14:25
  • @StoneyB So using rel. pron. in these ways in the speaking section of the exam is not only acceptable but also preferable, given that the purpose of the exam (TOEFL) is to examine whether you deserve a higher education program given in English?
    – Pteromys
    Sep 11, 2012 at 14:26
  • @RoaringFish Thank you for that useful distinction, of which I was not aware. Sep 11, 2012 at 14:43
  • @Pteromys W e l l . . . I am not a member of the specific discourse community which constitutes the examining authority. You know more about their dialect and its standards and quirks than I; don't worry about giving them the right answer, give them the answer they want. That's what I meant by "cultivating a dialect". Sep 11, 2012 at 14:47
  • 3
    Pied-Piping is normal (though not obligatory) in writing. In speech it's a mark of formality, though. Knowing how it works, and being able to choose whether to strand a preposition or not, is like having a suit in your closet; think of it as a fashion accessory. Sep 11, 2012 at 16:01

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