Is it possible for the relative pronoun "who", which normally requires an antecedent noun/pronoun, to be used independently, or do we need to say "he who / the one who / the person who, as in:

1 - Who thinks he knows it all is deluded

2 - Beware who thinks he knows it all

3 - The most untrustworthy person is who thinks he knows it all

4 - Seeking the wisdom of who thinks he knows it all can lead to trouble

The sentences sound uncommon, if a little old-fashioned, but relatively okay to me. Or perhaps there's some Portuguese interference clouding my perception. I'm less confident about sentence (4) – using "who" right after a preposition somehow seems a bit odd, though in this sentence "whom" would certainly not be possible, despite the fact that "whom" can be followed by a verb, as in "This should interest my friends, most of whom are fond of reading."

Come to think of it, using "who" after a preposition may be actually totally harmless - a Google search offers countless examples of the type, "...Let's talk about who has freedom " ; "...keeping track of who is logged into..."; "...This change in who makes the news is also apparent..." (These sentences also seem to confirm that "who" does not need an antecedent; then again, Google searches are not always a very reliable source of grammatical sentences!)

I'm racking my brains, trying to remember in what kind of situation the use of "who" is not deemed grammatical, and it would have to be replaced with "whom". The only one I can think of right now is in sentences like, "The little boy at whom you're looking is an accomplished musician" .

Any comments would be much appreciated.

São Paulo, Brazil
Last edited {1}
Original Post
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the pronoun "who" was used in this kind of clause "” called a nominal, independent, or fused, relative clause "” in this position in a sentence. Early examples, from Google:

Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing. 'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed.
Author: William Shakespeare
Source: Othello the Moor of Venice (Iago at III, iii)

Who steals a bugle-horn, a ring, a steed, Or such like worthless thing, has some discretion; 'Tis petty larceny: not such his deed Who robs us of our fame, our best possession.
Author: Francesco Berni
Source: Orlando Innamorato (canto LV)

Since that time the word "who" in such clauses in this sentence function has been largely replaced by the indefinite pronoun "whoever," especially when it refers to an unknown, indefinite individual.

The nominal, independent, or fused, relative clause is called by these names because the headword consists of a noun/pronoun plus a relative all in one word. In the head word both the pronoun and the relative word are "fused" together into a single word. "Who" stands for "the person who"; "what" stands for "the thing that"; "where" stands for "the place where," and so on.

Nominal relative clauses are seen in this kind of sentence:

"” Whoever stole my laptop has ruined my career! (WHOEVER = the person who)

"” What caught my attention was the diamond in her front tooth (WHAT = the thing that)

"” Where we went last night is none of your business (WHERE = the place where)

The pronoun "who" is, however, alive and well in sentences after a preposition, as you saw in Gisele's Google examples and as you can see in these Google examples:

"” They're offering me the job only because of who my parents are

"” When the knock came at her door, she issued an invitation to come in automatically, assuming that it was one of her dorm mates. She was therefore totally unprepared for who entered the room.

"” And remember–if you don't vote, you have no right to complain about who was elected.

"” "As a pitcher, you just need to take it as it comes. If I got upset about what happened behind me, I wouldn't be able to concentrate on who was at the plate."

"” All of this was very interesting. He was going to focus on how interesting it was, so that he didn't have to deal with who was sitting beside him.

So "who" is at home in a nominal relative clause after a preposition. It's also at home as subject complement:

"” The mysterious male benefactor turned out not to be who he was rumored to be

"” The murderer turned out not to be who we thought it was

Modern grammar offers three options for Gisele's sentences: One could use the pronoun "whoever":

1a - WHOEVER thinks he knows it all is deluded

2a - Beware WHOEVER thinks he knows it all

3a - The most untrustworthy person is WHOEVER thinks he knows it all

4a - Seeking the wisdom of WHOEVER thinks he knows it all can lead to trouble

Alternatively, one would use either 1) "the person" or 2) a personal pronoun in the appropriate case form, plus a restrictive relative clause:

1b - THE PERSON /HE who thinks he knows it all is deluded (He = grammatical subject)

2b - Beware THE PERSON/HIM who thinks he knows it all (HIM = direct object of "beware")

3b - The most untrustworthy person is THE PERSON/HE who thinks he knows it all (HE = subject complement)

(Most speakers would say "...is THE ONE who..." to avoid using the formal HE.)

4b - Seeking the wisdom of THE PERSON/HIM who thinks he knows it all can lead to trouble (HIM = object of preposition)

Marilyn Martin
Dear Marilyn,

How I love to be part of this community of English lovers - the answers I get are always so thorough, illuminating and helpful! Thank you very much indeed for the great work all of you at the Grammar Exchange have been doing! It's certainly a privilege for me to be able to draw on your knowledge!


Add Reply

Link copied to your clipboard.