#amwriting: the dreaded zero relative pronoun

Epic Fails signOften, first-time authors will submit their work to a writing group, and immediately run afoul of the guru who ignores the story, but focuses on pointing out every instance of the word ‘that,’ snidely remarking “This is clearly a novice effort, so I won’t dig too deep.”

While this is an unpleasant experience, the guru does have a point. Certain uses of the words ‘that’ are unnecessary and bloat your narrative.

The word ‘that’ is known to editors and grammarians as the dreaded ‘Zero Relative Pronoun’ and it has siblings, ‘which,‘ and ‘who/whom‘.

As an editor, I often have to explain why I am suggesting the deleting of so many instances of the word ‘that,’ ‘which,’ or who(m)’ in a manuscript. At first glance, this seems nit-picky and can get new authors fired up, as they honestly don’t understand what the problem is.

The words ‘that,’ ‘which,’ and ‘who(m)’ have a unique place in our English language. They can be invisible—in most instances, we hear them, but we don’t see them.

According to WIKIPEDIA (THE FOUNT OF ALL KNOWLEDGE) (and I quote:)

Zero relative pronoun:

English, unlike other West Germanic languages, has a zero relative pronoun (denoted below as Ø) — that is, the relative pronoun is only implied and is not explicitly present. It is an alternative to that, which or who(m) in a restrictive relative clause:

*Jack built the house that I was born in. OR: Jack built the house Ø I was born in.

*He is the person who(m) I saw. OR: He is the person Ø I saw.

Relative clauses headed by zeros are frequently called contact clauses in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) contexts, and may also be called “zero clauses”. (end quote)

Let’s examine Wikipedia’s examples more closely and in simpler language:

If you look at the words ‘that’, ‘which,’ and ‘whom’ as being implied, the above sentences would read like this:

*Jack built the house I was born in.

*He is the person I saw.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on the word ‘that’:

Because the word ‘that’ is a zero relative pronoun, it usually can’t be the subject of the verb in the relative clause. Sometimes, though, prose demands a more wordy approach, and in such a case, the zero relative pronoun can’t be omitted because it is the subject.

*Jack built the house that sits on the hill.

*Jack built the house that was damaged by the tornado.

SO, in this case, we keep the word ‘that’.

*Jack built the house ___ sits on the hill.

*Jack built the house ___ was damaged by the tornado.

We don’t use zero relative pronouns in non-restrictive relative clauses, or in relative clauses with a fronted preposition, such as: From where did the idea come? The preposition ‘from’ begins the phrase and is a formal form of English.

We could say: Jack built the house in which we now live.

But it would be simpler to say: Jack built the house where we live.

However, zero relative pronouns can be used when the preposition is stranded:

*Jack built the house that we now live in.

These principles are also true of ‘which’ and ‘who/whom,’ so always keep in mind the implied words, and don’t bloat your prose by writing them out.

Grammar rules scare people because they tend to be phrased in complicated, hard to understand ways. But knowing a few of these rules will improve your skills. Your initial laying down of prose, or free-writing, will become instinctively better.

chicago manual of style

Understanding grammar rules  can be like trying to decipher the assembly instructions for a complicated  Swedish bookshelf from a big-box store.

But knowing a few of these rules smooths out the narrative. Your readers will easily understand what you meant, and will enjoy your work.

Some people have the luxury and the desire to take college level writing courses and learn about this and other writing techniques at the outset of their career.

Others, like me, are thrown into life and just begin writing in our spare time, putting the story down the way we see it. We have the hardest path, but by taking advantage of the free education offered by researching via the internet, and attending writing seminars as we can afford them, we are on the way to becoming better writers.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “#amwriting: the dreaded zero relative pronoun

  1. Stephen

    You have crossed the line now and are officially rocking the Linguistics like a boss!

    Like

  2. Thank you Professor Connie. I needed the lesson that I just read. Oops. I needed the lesson I just read.

    Like

  3. I’ve found the use of ‘that’ depends somewhat upon what you are writing.
    To elucidate: I’m a fiction writer by preference, and it’s where I started my writing career, though I had a long way to go in learning and understanding the finer points of language usage.
    I then strayed into journalism and magazine writing (both non-fiction). Subject to writing within strict word counts, I formed the habit of losing every possible unnecessary word, including ‘that’.
    Then I sold a non-fiction book to a publishing house, and had my first experience of formal editing. I didn’t enjoy it, but I did learn from it.
    However, in that book, and subsequent ones, all my ‘that’s’ were required to be put back in!
    Now, I don’t know if this is specifically a UK English thing, or if it also happens in US English non-fiction (do you know?), but when I went back to fiction, I had to unlearn it all over again!
    Sigh. That’s what writing for markets does for you.

    Like

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