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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter II. Syntax

RELATIVES

f. 'It ... that.'



TWO constructions, closely allied, but grammatically distinct, are often confused: (i) Antecedent 'it' followed by a defining relative clause with 'that' (who, which); (ii) 'it' followed by a clause in apposition, introduced by the conjunction 'that'. The various correct possibilities are represented in the set of examples given below. Relative clauses are marked R, conjunction clauses C. One impossible example is added in brackets, to mark the transition from relative to conjunction.

  1. It is money that I want. R.
  2. It was you that told me. R.
  3. It was you that I gave it to (or, to whom I gave it). R.
  4. It was to you that I gave it. C.
  5. It was the Romans that built this wall. R.
  6. It is the Romans that we are indebted to for this. R.
  7. It is to the Romans that we are indebted for this. C.
  8. It was Jones whose hat I borrowed. R.
  9. It was Jones's hat that I borrowed. R.
  10. It was a knife that I cut it with. R.
  11. It was with a knife that I cut it. C.
  12. It was with difficulty that I cut it. C.
  13. (It was difficulty that I cut it with.) R.
  14. It was provisionally that I made the offer. C.
  15. It was in this spring, too, that the plague broke out. C.
  16. Accordingly, it was with much concern that I presently received a note informing me of his departure. C.


In the relative construction, the antecedent 'it' is invariable, whatever the number and gender of the relative. The main verb is also invariable in number, but in tense is usually adapted to past, though not (for euphony's sake) to future circumstances: 'it was you that looked foolish', but 'it is you that will look foolish'.

In both constructions, the 'that' clause, supplemented or introduced by 'it', gives us the subject of a predication, the relative clause (with it) being equivalent to a pure noun, the conjunction clause to a verbal noun in apposition, partly retaining its verbal character. In both, also, the predication answers an imaginary question, recorded distinctly in the relative, less distinctly in the conjunction clause. 'What do you want?' 'It (the thing) that I want is money.' 'To whom did you give it?' 'It (the persons) that I gave it to was your friends.' 'As to your cutting it: give particulars.' 'It—that I cut it (my cutting it)—was with a knife.'

From the above examples it will be seen that the two constructions largely overlap. When (as in 1, 2, 5, 8) the relative is subject or direct object of the clause-verb, or is in the possessive case, it cannot be replaced by the conjunction; but when its relation to the clause-verb is marked by a preposition, the conjunction always may take its place, and sometimes must, as in 12 and 13. For the relative clause can only be used when the question reflected in it is calculated to secure the right kind of answer. Now the natural answer to the question 'What did you cut it with?' is not 'difficulty' but 'a knife'. The misleading 'with' is therefore removed from the relative clause in 13, and placed within the predicate, the definite question 'What did you cut it with?' giving place to the vague demand for particulars. 'With' being removed, the relative clause falls to pieces, for want of a word to govern the relative, and the conjunction clause takes its place. In the same way, 'it was a cab (but not high indignation) that he drove away in'; 'it was a concert (but not curiosity) that I was returning from'; 'it was a beech-tree (but not unpleasant circumstances) that I found him under'. And, generally, it will be found that a preposition is admissible in the relative clause only when used in the literal or the most obvious sense.

The conjunction clause is, as we have said, a verbal noun; so far a noun that things can be predicated of it, and so far a verb that the things predicated of it are verbal relations and verbal circumstances, indirect object, agent, instrument, means, manner, cause, attendant circumstances; anything but subject and direct object. 'My giving was to you'; 'my offering was provisionally'; 'my concealing it was because I was ashamed'.

The mistakes that constantly occur in careless writers result from hesitation between the two forms where both are possible. The confusion, however, ought not to arise; for always with a relative clause, and never with a conjunction, the complement of the main predicate (the answer to the suppressed question) is a noun or the grammatical equivalent of a noun. 'A knife', 'Jones', 'you', 'my friend in Chicago', 'the man who lives next door', are the answers that accompany the relative clause: 'with a knife', 'with difficulty', 'to you', 'occasionally', 'because I was ashamed', are those that accompany the conjunction.

Examples 15 and 16, though quite recognized types, are really artificial perversions. In 15 the true question and answer in the circumstances would be, not, as the sentence falsely implies, 'When did the plague break out?' 'That too happened in this same spring', but 'Were there any other notable events in this spring?' 'Yes: the plague broke out'. Impressiveness is given to the announcement by the fiction that the reader is wondering when the plague broke out; in fact, he is merely waiting for whatever may turn up in the history of this spring. In 16 we go still further: the implied question, 'What were your feelings on receiving a (not the) note...?' could not possibly be asked; the information that alone could prompt it is only given in the 'that' clause.

It has been pointed out in b. that a relative clause with antecedent 'it' particularly calls for the relative 'that', in preference to 'which', and even to 'who'. Even when the relative is in the possessive case, 'that', which has no possessive, is often retained by transferring to the main predicate the noun on which it depends; 8 thus gives place to 9, even at the risk of ambiguity; for the relative clause now supplies us with the question (not 'whose hat...?' but) 'what did you borrow?' leaving us theoretically in doubt whether Jones's hat is distinguished from his other property, from other people's hats, or from things in general.

On the other hand, the two blunders that are most frequently made almost invariably have the relative 'who' or 'which'.

And it is to me, the original promoter of the whole scheme, to whom they would deny my fair share in the profits!


'To me' implies a conjunction clause: 'to whom...' is a relative clause. 'It is to me that..'.

It was to Mrs. Brent, the beetle-browed wife of Mr. Commissary Brent, to whom the General transferred his attentions now.—Thackeray.

It is to you whom I address a history which may perhaps fall into very different hands.—Scott.


'To you that', or 'you to whom'.

It is not taste that is plentiful, but courage that is rare.—Stevenson.


Again a common blunder; not, however, a confusion between the two constructions above, but between one of them (the relative) and a third. The sentence explains why every one seems to prefer Shakespeare to Ouida (they are afraid to say that they like Ouida best). 'What is the explanation of this?' 'It is not the plentifulness of taste, but the rarity of courage, that explains it.' Or, less clumsily, using the construction that Stevenson doubtless intended: 'It (the inference to be drawn) is not that taste is plentiful, but that courage is rare.'

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