Fused relative clauses with who

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While exploring the history of "hippie punching", I came across this passage:

One day when I was but a young boy, I was walking down the street with my dad to the hardware store. He suddenly stopped, crossed the street and punched a man. When he returned, I ask, "Father, why did you punch that man?"

He turned to me and said, "That's a stupid question." Then he punched me.

It was a stupid question, because who my dad punched was a hippie. Back then, everyone knew that you punched hippies, but I've noticed that this knowledge may not be being passed on to the next generation. [emphasis added]

Michael Watts commented

I'm interested in the apparently full clause "who my dad punched was a hippie". I'm aware of this form, but in my mind it's not permitted in modern standard english; I would have to say "the man [or other noun] who my dad punched was a hippie".

And Eric P. Smith agreed:

I agree that “who” as a fused relative is not standard. Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002) is surprisingly categoric: “We cannot say, for example, *Who wrote this letter must have been mad.” (Page 1076). But I think it is growing, and I think it crossed the Atlantic eastwards. I first saw it about 3 years ago in a notice in Edinburgh University Library: “If we can't help you, we’ll put you in touch with who can.”

This might be called the "who steals my purse steals trash" construction, or perhaps the Iago clause; and Geoff Pullum commented on a modern case in "Can I help who's next?", 12/4/2005.

Iago clauses are definitely still Out There these days, though they're clearly informal and maybe to some extent regional. There are plenty of examples in COCA — for instance, this one from an NPR interview with Lee Tamahori:

The film stands or falls on this bear. This is a story that relied on a predator hunting down these guys and trying to pick 'em off one by one. You know, I didn't know who the actors were gonna be. I said it doesn't matter who the actors are gonna be . Who we cast is gonna do a great job. It's a good screenplay. But the bear, if it's done badly, can bring the whole film crashing down around their ears and making the actors look like turkeys.

From USA Today:

In the tournament, no one gets a choice. You play who you get.

From the New York Times:

Our commissioner has been supportive, saying,' Hire who you need, and we'll find the money later on.'

And of course the old expression "dance with who brung ya", or other cases where fused relatives with who are the objects of prepositions:

People have a right to be friends with who they want to now.


  1. Kris said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 9:07 am

    Do you mean to tell me that it is less correct to say "Hire who you need" than "Hire whoever you need", both of which I find reasonable?

    [(myl) Many people are apparently taken aback by expressions like "Can I help who's next?", as discussed here.]

  2. jfruh said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 9:48 am

    My admittedly uninformed impression is that some of these usages are reductions of "whoever" or "whomever" ("Who we cast," "can I help who's next") where as some are deliberately playfully pushing at the boundries of syntax, as in "who my dad punched was a hippie". The latter clause is already in a bit of satirical writing, which makes the idea that it's a language game a little more likely, yes?

    [(myl) As Geoff Pullum wrote in the cited 2005 post,

    Notice, I've been talking about phrases like who taught Frankenstein his medical skills and who's next. Things are completely different if we consider not the lexeme who but instead the compound lexeme whoever. That (like all the wh + -ever words) is freely used in fused relatives. If I was hearing Can I help whoever's next? I wouldn't have written this post at all. There'd be nothing interesting to say. And no, I don't think we're looking at a contraction of whoever. You can't just posit random omissions of two-syllable sequences, especially when they just happen to result in something that is almost grammatical and used to be fully grammatical. And particularly not in this kind of case, where the -ever part is meaningful.


  3. Margaret S. said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 9:52 am

    There seems to be more than one type of “fused who” here. Some of them could be substituted by “whoever”, but the one in your first example couldn’t (without changing the meaning). As you point out, the substitute for that one would be “the [noun] who”. There is also an overlap, since some of them could be either “whoever” or “the [noun] who”.

    [(myl) Fused relatives with what are similarly vague between a whatever-like free-choice sense (e.g. "You have to take what you can get") and a specific-referent sense ("He mopped up what she spilled").

    I guess it's possible that this is an ambiguity, but I think the first line of analysis would be to see it as similar to the various interpretations that are almost always available for e.g. definite descriptions.]

  4. Robert Coren said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    "dance with who brung ya"

    The version of this I'm most familiar with avoids the fusing with "Dance with the one who [or that] brung ya". I was going to say that that was the title of a book by Molly Ivins, but Wikipedia tells me that it's actually You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. So much for "standard English".

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 10:26 am

    Is there reason to believe that the Iago quote reflects how (some) people actually spoke at the time (in some contexts), or is it more likely to be poetic license, where speakers of the time who didn't need to trim a line for prosodic etc. reasons would have said "He who steals" etc.? (Or perhaps "Him what steals," depending on various sociolinguistic factors.)

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 10:30 am

    Or perhaps the now-archaic "Whoso stealeth" etc. (The KJV has "Whoso robbeth" in Prov. 28:24.)

  7. TR said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 11:06 am

    To me, it makes a difference whether the relative clause is functioning as subject of the verb or not. "Hire who you need" (where it's the object) sounds fine to me, "Who punched my dad was a hippie" (where it's the subject) sounds weird.

  8. Lazar said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    I noticed this usage in Nineteen Eighty-Four with "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." And yeah, it struck me as weird – the natural wording to me would definitely have been "he who controls".

  9. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

    In a few of these cases, I think the "who"-clause is actually an interrogative content clause (and therefore standard) rather than a fused relative construction. For example:

    > The South Hills is also typically western because of who [it is that] runs it: technically, the Forest Service.

    [(myl) I think you're right about this one, so I've removed it from the post.]

    For that matter, even in a few of the examples with fused relatives, I think the interrogative "who" is an influencing factor. For example, in "who my dad punched was a hippie", the writer is not so much describing the man who was punched ("the man was a hippie"), as explaining the punching ("the punching was hippie-punching"). He's answering the question "who did my dad punch?", not the question "who is that man who my dad punched?"

  10. bloix said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

    There's a book of American Indian stories called "Who Met the Ice Lynx: Naming Stories of the Swampy Cree People," see

    Each story is about a person who is given a name in the "Who [verb][object]" form to describe something notable about what that person did.

    I believe I've seen the "who [verb]" form in other contexts as indicating a translation from an American Indian language.

  11. Robert Coren said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

    I consider myself a moderately careful speaker of English (I was raised by editors, for whatever that's worth), and I find most of these usages unremarkable.

    The KJV "whoso", on the other hand, sounds like an archaic form of "whoever" to me.

  12. Alexander said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

    I take it the question is just about "referential" uses of these relatives? Because as subjects of specificational pseudoclefts, who-relatives seem entirely normal, as in the web example below, though I've heard some older Americans say otherwise. Note that these are not contexts for "whoever," and also not (it seems to me) regionalisms.

    — "Who I do like on the show is Cat’s sister, Heather. She is just the cutest little pixie thing!!! Who I can’t STAND is Cat’s HORSE FACE partner."

  13. Aaron Toivo said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

    Is there supposed to be a difference in acceptability of these fused relatives with other relative pronouns? It seems to me like it's much easier and more standard with relatives in "what" than in "who", even though all the "who" examples above are perfectly good English to me.

    Unless I'm wrong that they're all fused relatives, are any of these supposed to be less-acceptable English?

    a) What killed my father was cancer.
    b) What goes around comes around.
    c) Think what you like.
    d) I don't like what's happening in Syria.
    e) I'm afraid of what he'll do if he finds out.

    [(myl) Please read the cited 2005 post, which addresses your question at length. The story, as expressed in that post as in CGEL, is that fused relatives with what remain grammatical, but fused relatives with who in general no longer are.

    But at least your example "Think what you like" might be an indirect question (like "Think how she might have done it") rather than a headless relative clause.]

  14. Paul Mulshine said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    This structure is uncontroversial in French. "Qui dort dine" is one such proverb and when I looked it up I found many others beginning with "Qui": http://www.languagerealm.com/french/frenchproverbs_q.php

  15. Ben Bolker said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 2:46 pm


  16. Rubrick said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 3:20 pm

    It's sad that Keith and John are no longer with us, but still, you've gotta listen to the Who who are playing. Or maybe the Who who is playing. Or the The Who who is playing?

    Blatant hijacking: I can't recall if the peculiar syntax around band and team names has been discussed on LL, but I find it fascinating. E.g.:

    The best band of the Eighties was the Cure.
    The Cure was the best band of the Eighties.
    The greatest band of all time is the Beatles.
    *The Beatles is the greatest band of all time.
    *The Bulls was the dominant team that year.
    The Jazz was the dominant team that year.
    The Pacers were their greatest rival.
    *The Pacers were its greatest rival.
    The Jazz were able to overcome their first-half deficit.
    ?The Jazz was able to apply strong full-court pressure.
    Larry Bird was the most famous Celtic.
    ?Michael Jordan was the most famous Bull.
    *LeBron James is the most famous Heat.

    My favorite bit of humor exploiting this twistiness was the Onion's "Who's your favorite Flock of Seagull?"

  17. Aaron Toivo said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

    My apologies. In fact it was the 2005 post that led me to ask; but now I see I did not read it carefully enough the first time, and missed a couple statements that helped tie that part of the post together, which left it quite unclear to me.

    (This seems to happen a lot near colored text. It so draws the eye that I'm distracted while trying to read the non-colored parts. I should learn to notice this better when it's happening.)

  18. Y said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

    http://www.who-smelt-it-dealt-it.com [N.B. unsuitable for adults.]
    Though ususally it's "He who…" or "Whoever…"

  19. Jason said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

    @Paul Mulshine

    "Qui" cannot be said to be the French equivalent of "who". It is the subject-position relativizer converse to the object-position relativizer "que". The use of these is purely based on the grammatical position of the relativized head and it doesn't reflect the animacy distinction of English "who" versus "that." Given this, no cross-language comparison is really possible.

  20. State of Euphoria said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 9:51 pm

    @Ben Bolker
    Thanks — This AmEng speaker now realizes that Anthrax's 1989 single "Who Cares Wins" might be a pun on the Who Dares Wins slogan — lyrics are about indifference to homelessness, so "Who Cares" is presumably the subject of Wins. British band Mega City Four used the same title for a 1990 album, probably without a clear parse in mind, but the book Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business is Better Business (2011, Financial Times press) no doubt preserves the Who Dares Wins syntax.

  21. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 12:42 am

    @Jason: It's much more complicated than that. Sometimes qui and que differ in case (subject vs. direct object), and sometimes they differ in animacy (animate vs. not). In the case of fused relatives, que isn't even an option: qui is animate subject (like Paul Mulshine's example), ce qui is inanimate subject, and ce que is inanimate object. (But I agree with your larger point.)

  22. Frank Y Gladney said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 1:24 am

    With fused relatives at least we know where what fused was before it was fused. I have (that) which you want: that+which= what.

    But how about _What friends I had have flown_?

  23. jrand said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 9:19 am

    @Ran Ari-Gur,Paul Mulshine,,J.W. Brewer, Jason — Just to tie into the Romance language comparison, my wife from Brazil uses the strong version of “who” for “the person who” all the time, so I’m guessing she’s mentally translating a Portuguese structure.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 9:43 am

    Is this the same thing when it's the complement of be? From Ari Fleischer on Anderson Cooper:

    And people are kind of hoping that Rick Santorum is who they want.

    That strikes me as normal and unlikely to attract objections.

    From Sports Illustrated:

    When Gordon says "Dad," this is whom he's talking about.

    (That sounds okay to me except that the "whom" seems a little formal for the rest. By the way, I think that preposition is un-pied-pipe-able.)

    I was actually looking for examples with whom:

    And I do believe that people should be allowed to marry whom they fall in love with.

    Kristin Chenoweth (I think) in Prevention magazine.

    I found a "whom" clause as the subject only in "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad" and variations on it.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 10:51 am

    Robert Coren is correct that archaic "whoso" was generally used where "whoever" could be used now, which works in some but not all of the "who" examples under discussion (with the Iago line being one where "whoever" would, in fact, work). In the KJV, "whoso" seems to exist in reasonably free variation with "whosoever," with the latter being more common and no obvious-to-me-at-first-glance semantic distinction. I haven't further investigated what might have motivated the KJV translators to use one in some contexts and the other in others (they could well have been tracking the distribution of near-synonyms in the underlying Hebrew and Greek, but not necessarily; the "whoso" version seems more common in some books of the Bible than others so it could have just been a stylistic preference of translators assigned to do the first draft of different drafts not thought to be the sort of issue that had to be ironed out into complete uniformity later in the editorial process).

  26. Paul Mulshine said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

    Jason, That would make sense if there were an animacy disinction between the English "who" and "that." But they are interchangeable. "He's the guy that works at the mall." and "He's the guy who works at the mall."
    And the direct translation of the French "Qui dort dine" makes perfect sense in English: "Who sleeps eats."

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 5:41 pm

    Also, in pseudo-archaic language, Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight (1968):

    Who wills,
    Who tries,
    Who loves,

  28. AB said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 8:07 pm

    Another "whom" instance:

    But it is not I who can loose whom the Pope has bound.

    (T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, occurring as verse.)

  29. KevinM said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    I doubt that "Can I help who's next?" is a remnant of archaic grammar, preserved by the ancient ice cream scooper culture. I'm guessing it caught on as a Lego-set addition to the question "Who's next?" "Who's next" may come across as brusque; "Can I help" sounds a little more like customer service.

  30. Belial said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

    Though cross-language comparisons may be bootless, the Iago-clause structure brings to mind the line Cras amet qui numquam amavit, quique amavit cras amet.

  31. Frank YGladney said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 5:13 am

    @ KevinM

    "Can I help who's next" also can be understood as "It's not my fault you weren't in line."

  32. Paul Mulshine said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

    Another way of looking at this is that in these cases "who" is just short for "whoever." And "whoever" can be seen as two words "who" a noun and "ever" a modifier of that noun. This usage simply retains the noun but omits the modifier. Nothing particularly unusual about that.

  33. Peter Lewis said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 11:15 am

    Reminds me of a certain kind of New York accent. On NYPD Blue, Sipowicz used to talk like this in investigations: "So your partner, he's who did the shooting?" Not sure if it's quite the same thing though.

  34. Bloix said,

    June 15, 2013 @ 10:08 am

    From a professor, writing informally in a blog post:
    "My guess for a long time has been that who really knows about teaching are the 10% or so of undergraduates who are most attentive to and thoughtful about teaching…"


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