Rules for Using Relative Pronouns Correctly in Your Thesis or Dissertation
The use of relative pronouns is often necessary when producing the kind of formal prose required in a scholarly thesis or dissertation, but using relative pronouns correctly can be challenging, as the errors frequently seen in writing of all kinds indicate. In a recent newsletter for authors published by a prominent press, for instance, sound advice about the importance of an author knowing as much as possible about his or her readers was expressed in language that boasted a glaring grammatical error: ‘How do you know whom your average reader is?’ Some of you will be able to identify the problem immediately and with precision, but others, I suspect, will recognise that there is a mistake, yet not be certain exactly what that mistake is. The error lies in the use of the relative pronoun ‘whom,’ which is the objective or accusative case of the nominative form ‘who,’ and that nominative form is what is actually needed to correct the grammar of the sentence: ‘How do you know who your average reader is?’
You may well be asking why at this point, and it is a valid question. After all, the subject of the sentence (you) should ideally have knowledge about the object (the reader represented by the word ‘whom’), so using the objective case may seem completely rational. That argument would certainly make sense were there no relative clause in the sentence, with ‘How do you know him or her?’ being correct with the accusatives forms ‘him’ and ‘her.’ However, the relative clause that consists of ‘whom your average reader is’ or, more correctly, ‘who your average reader is’ changes the grammatical structure of the sentence due to the rules that apply to relative clauses.
The key point is that the grammatical case of a relative pronoun, unlike its number and gender, is determined by its function within its relative clause, not by its relationship to its antecedent (stated or otherwise) in the main sentence. Although the reader may be the object of the subject’s knowledge in my example sentence, that reader is nonetheless the subject of the relative clause, so the relative pronoun referring to the reader must be in the nominative case. If ‘whom’ instead represented the object of the relative clause, it would be the correct form: ‘How do you know whom your average reader enjoys most?’ Here the reader remains the subject of the relative clause, but ‘whom’ represents the author that reader enjoys more than others. ‘Whom’ would also be appropriate for the dative case (the indirect object), but then the preposition ‘to’ is necessary as well: ‘How do you know to whom you should market your book?’
Challenging though it may be at times to use relative pronouns correctly, it is essential to do so in your thesis or dissertation in order to produce English prose that communicates clearly with your readers and maintains the high scholarly standard of written expression required to pass your examination and earn your degree. You may want to keep both the advice and the error I have quoted from that publisher’s newsletter in mind, because if you make such a blatant mistake, many of the average readers of your thesis or dissertation will certainly be able to detect it and therefore recognise that you are not saying what you inten
ded to say.
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