When I give lectures on why you should not listen to prescriptivists' dimwitted prattle about the wrongness of constructions that are fully grammatical and always were, people sometimes ask me what I would regard as bad grammar, as if such cases were going to be hard to find. So occasionally I note down striking cases of failure to get English syntax right (especially written English, naturally enough), and discuss them here.
A friend (don't make me say who) with a middle-rank managerial position in a large bureaucratic organization (don't make me say which) recently received a memo informing him about which of his recommendations for staff promotions and pay increases had been successful, and part of it said:
…it is strongly recommended that you meet with staff, whom have been unsuccessful, in order to provide support after their receiving the disappointing news.
That's a rather astonishing ungrammatical case of whom, used without a shred of justification as subject of a tensed verb to which it is immediately adjacent; but also a crashingly salient case of punctuating a restrictive relative incorrectly. And the email version of the memo, amazingly, was even worse.
There are two major ways in which a relative clause may function. One is that a relative clause may be a fully integrated modifier of the noun in a noun phrase, often providing some sort of semantic restriction on the reference of that noun. Thus person can be used to denote the entire class of human beings, while person who has been unsuccessful denotes only the smaller subset of those who have failed at something. The underlined part is what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls an integrated relative clause. They are often called "restrictive" relative clauses, or "defining" relative clauses.
The other major function for relative clauses is to serve as a parenthetical interruption of the main flow of a sentence, contributing supplementary information about someone or something immediately after it is referred to in the main content. Thus You can talk to John if you like just says that if you want you can talk to John, but You can talk to John, who has more experience, if you like adds some supplementary (and definitely secondary) information about John's experience level. This kind of relative clause is the one that CGEL calls a supplementary relative clause.
There are all sorts of differences between the two, but the one that is crucial here is that supplementary relatives must be separated off with commas and integrated ones must not be.
Thus, since supplementary relatives are often appended to proper names while integrated ones almost never are, it is obligatory to have the commas in You can talk to John, who has more experience, if you like.
The really important communicational difference between the two kinds of relative is that they have utterly different semantics. If I say Politicians who I admire never get elected, with an integrated relative, my claim (possibly a true one, e.g. if I only admire third party candidates) is about politicians who I admire; but if I say Politicians, who I admire, never get elected, I'm making the false claim that no politicians ever get elected, with the (astonishing) supplementary claim that I admire all politicians.
The memo my manager friend received makes the semantically disastrous grammatical mistake of putting commas before and after the relative clause, and thus makes (unintendedly) a completely false claim. I'll just ignore the distracting extra morphological error of choosing whom (rarely used these days except after prepositions, and never used as the subject of an immediately following verb). Let's just replace whom throughout, whether it's understood as a subject or not (that's what nearly everyone does: we say Who did you tell?, not Whom did you tell?). To tell a manager whose recommendations for raises have in some cases been denied that he should meet with staff who have been unsuccessful is sensible enough; but it is very different to say meet with staff, who have been unsuccessful. Putting it that way instructs him to call a meeting with all staff, or call in each staff member individually. And it claims via the relative clause that all staff have been unsuccessful. No raises or promotions whatsoever. That is not what the memo writer meant.
I mentioned earlier that the email version of the same memo was worse still. It contained two prime syntactic blunders suitable for holding up before the young as an example of how not to write. The whom is not there in the email version, but this is what it said:
We do recommend that you meet with colleagues, who have been unsuccessful, in order to provide support after receiving disappointing news.
First, it seems to say that he must meet with all colleagues. (This is not true: he is being advised to have sessions only with those whose promotion or pay raise applications were turned down by the relevant higher authority.) Second, because there are commas flanking the relative clause who have been unsuccessful, it must (under the usual rules of written Standard English) be interpreted as a supplementary one, so the sentence asserts that all colleagues have been unsuccessful (and this is also not true).
But there is a third blunder: a fairly astonishing dangling modifier. No subject is provided for the verb receiving, so one has to guess, and the guess that is probably the most syntactically plausible one is semantically implausible and clearly not right. If I said to you something like You should pour a stiff drink after receiving disappointing news, you would think I meant pour a stiff drink for yourself after you have received news that is disappointing for you. But in the quotation above, provide support after receiving disappointing news doesn't mean provide support for yourself after you have received news that is disappointing for you. It means provide support for the relevant staff members after they have received news that is disappointing for them. But it doesn't clearly say that. It leave things dangling, tempting you to delay yourself by picking up the stupid meaning and then backtracking. It fails to provide you with visible guidance.
Both the hard copy memo and the email version are atrocious pieces of writing. Someone in the Human Resources department of that organization needs to go take an elementary grammar and writing class.
And not a course that uses The Elements of Style as a text. All that E. B. White wants to impress upon you (for it was he, not William Strunk, who wrote the relevant section) is that only supplementary relatives are allowed to begin with which; integrated relatives are forbidden to use it, and must begin with that instead. This is not true: respectable users of the English language for hundreds of years have used both which and that to begin integrated relative clauses (think of Roosevelt's famous description of the date of the Pearl Harbor attack was "a day which will live in infamy"). It's a fetish that obsesses amateur grammar buffs and ill-informed copy editors, and it's not important at all. What's important are things like those commas round supplementary relatives, and the proper construction of sentences so that understood subjects of non-finite subjectless clauses will be immediately guessable.
So don't ever imagine, on the basis of all my preaching against Strunk and White, that I think all honest attempts at using English are just as good as any others. The two passages quoted above are terrible writing. It's inexcusable to write as badly as that when conveying serious material to managers in the pursuance of your administrative duties. It's a disgrace to the profession of bureaucrat. Such writing needs to be fixed. But let's make sure we fix the right things.