May 28, 2004

An ancient and fatherly show

There's been a lot of feedback on the "partitive participial relatives" that I discussed a couple of days ago. These are examples like "At present, personal injury cases are heard by many different Judges, some of whom having no experience in this field." Steve at Language Hat wrote about the topic, and his (literate and erudite) commenters commented on it, and Neque Volvere Trochum at entangledbank provided more analytic depth (as did N.V.T.'s literate and erudite commenters), and I got a bunch of email from our (l. and e.) readers. Andrew Durdin wrote in with some examples from classic texts (given below). Leaving aesthetic judgments to the side, I'll summarize the results by saying that most people seem to agree with me that the construction is ungrammatical, but some agree with Haj Ross (and the writers of the googled examples) in thinking that it's OK.

However, I wrote "seem to agree with me" because there are several different constructions being discussed, and it's possible to accept some of them while rejecting others. That's the way my own reactions fall out, for example. In my original post, I mentioned one such distinction in passing, and passed over the other in silence -- the post was already too long -- but the result was that some people misunderstood what I meant, so I'll try to clarify it here.

As before, those who are not interested in English syntax will want to turn their attention to some of our other topics, say Arabic domain names or vole as game animals.

The key question is whether a supplementary clause containing "whom" is tensed or not. If the answer is "no", then we have an example of the structure that I originally discussed. If the answer is "yes", then there are a couple of different sub-cases, to which people's reactions may also differ.

In all the cases under discussion, we have "Q of whom V-ing ..." at the start of a non-restrictive (or "supplementary") relative clause, where Q is something like some, both, most, neither, many, a few,, etc., V-ing is the present participle of a verb (usually having or being, though that is mainly because the result is an easy pattern to search for), and then ... matches the rest of the clause.

In some cases, the rest of the supplementary clause is nothing but the remainder of the verb phrase headed by the participle V-ing. That's the case with the first three examples that I gave (modulo working out the ... in the second one, where I didn't quote the original sentence in full), and it's also the case with this simple example that I cited later:

"He was one of four brothers, three of whom having died or departed."

The point is that the relative clause -- the clause containing the whom -- has no tensed (or "finite") verb.

Then there is a second structure, in which the supplementary clause is itself a complex consisting of two clauses. The first one is a participial clause, which stands as an initial supplement to a second, finite-verb clause. I gave two examples of this construction, including:

"The next evening we spent with the Consul and his two pretty daughters, neither of whom being able to speak a word of English, the conversation was carried on in French."

Finally, there is a third structure, where V-ing heads a participial relative clause serving as a supplementary modifier of the partitive Q of whom phrase, which in turn is the subject of a tensed verb following the participial relative. I didn't provide any examples of this structure, since I thought it was obvious that it isn't relevant, but of course nothing in this area is obvious. So here's a classical example, courtesy of Andrew Durdin:

(link) "[U]nder which every one did sit in his order according to his dignity, to keep him from the heat of the sun; divers of whom being of good age and gravity, did make an ancient and fatherly show." (Francis Pretty, Sir Francis Drake's Famous Voyage Round the World, originally published in 1580)

You can see the difference more clearly if we take the three supplements by themselves, replacing "whom" with "them", fixing Pretty's punctuation for clarity, and replacing his "divers" with "some" for the same reason:

(a) Three of them having died or departed.
(b) Neither of them being able to speak a word of English, the conversation was carried on in French.
(c) Some of them, being of good age and gravity, did make an ancient and fatherly show.

Example (a) is not a complete sentence, since it lacks a tensed verb, but (b) has the tensed main verb "was carried (on)", and (c) has the tensed main verb "did make".

Using square brackets for clause boundaries, and putting the participial clauses in red, we can schematize these three structures as:

(a) [ (Q of them) V-ing ... ]
(b) [ [ (Q of them) V-ing ... ] [ Subj VerbPhrase ] ]
(c) [ (Q of them) [ V-ing ...] VerbPhrase]

Now, we can take each of these structures, replace (the word) them with whom, and embed the whole thing in a main clause in which some noun phrase is to be non-restrictively modified by the structure we've created.

In the case of structure (c), the result is a completely normal if somewhat complex supplementary relative clause. Put the participial clause in parentheses, and it won't even be too hard to read:

[link] ... I am talking about 54 million people in the U.S., some of whom (being wealthy) can afford a better life ...   (re-punctuated for clarity)

In the case of structure (b), the result is a non-restrictive relative clause in which the relative pronoun whom is buried inside a recursively-embedded participial supplement. This is a dangerously complex structure, but I find it perfectly grammatical, once I figure out what the writer had in mind. Such patterns seem to have been fairly common in earlier centuries, when grammatical complexity was not only tolerated but even encouraged. Of the two examples that I originally cited, I find the first to be perfectly clear, though a bit archaic-seeming, while the second is very hard to construe. Here is it again, with a comma and some parentheses added in a feeble attempt to make the writer's intent easier to see:

"In this report I have dealt more in particulars, for the reason there are no reports from brigade commanders, ( [ all three of whom having been captured ], I reserve to myself the privilege of making such corrections as would appear right and proper when I subsequently have the opportunity to examine their reports. )"

Here is the promised list of examples from Project Gutenberg e-texts, emailed by Andrew Durdin -- with my classification of each into the categories (a), (b) and (c) as defined above. Note that only category (a) is really an example of the structure that I originally intended to comment on.

"under which every one did sit in his order according to his dignity, to keep him from the heat of the sun; divers of whom being of good age and gravity, did make an ancient and fatherly show." (Francis Pretty, Sir Francis Drake's Famous Voyage Round the World, 1910;
{type (c)}

"Sir Henry Sidney had three children, one of whom being Sir Philip Sidney, the type of a most gallant knight and perfect gentleman." (GORDON HOME, WHAT TO SEE IN ENGLAND, 1908;
{type (a)}

"The duke left Filippo and Giovanmaria Angelo, the latter of whom being slain by the people of Milan, the state fell to Filippo" (NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI (anonymous translation), HISTORY OF FLORENCE, 1901;
{type (b)}

"the marriage register contains an entry of the names of Thomas Tilsey and Ursula Russel, the first of whom being "deofe and also dombe," it was agreed by the bishop, mayor, and other gentlemen of the town, that certain signs and actions of the bridegroom should be admitted instead of the usual words enjoined by the Protestant marriage ceremony" (The Mirror of Literature, Vol. 20, Issue 572, October 20, 1832;
{type (b)}

There is another dimension of variation -- is the embedded non-restrictive relative clause placed at the beginning of the main clause, in the middle of the main clause (following the modified noun) or at the end of the main clause (perhaps immediately after the modified noun, or perhaps following some other stuff)?

For some people, the biggest surprise is that these Q-of-whom V-ing clauses can sometimes occur sentence-initially, preceding the modified noun(s), as in the first example that I cited:

"Both of whom being influenced by Ellington, Rowles and Brown choose one Ellington tune for each of the two albums that comprise this two-CD set..."

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 28, 2004 10:25 AM