Then Mark held Mary's hand, who was still terrified. (Meaning, "Then Mark held Mary's hand, Mary being still terrified.)

Can I use the pronoun "who" in this case, even if the preceding word is not what the pronoun "who" refers to? ("Who" doesn't refer to the hand, but to Mary.)

  • 1
    The relative word "who" is subject of the relative clause, and has either "hand" or the genitive "Mary's" as antecedent, neither of which makes any sense. We understand of course that "Mary" is the intended antecedent for "who", but strictly speaking it's marginally ungrammatical
    – BillJ
    Sep 17, 2018 at 12:07

2 Answers 2


You will hear many native speakers saying things like that.

The high winds blew off the house's roof, which had a For Sale sign on the front lawn.

There it's easy to improve:

The high winds blew off the roof of the house, which had a For Sale sign on the front lawn.

But the hand of Mary is a bit stilted:

Mark held the hand of Mary, who was still terrified.

You might see that in a novel or short story, but few speakers would say the hand of Mary. They would avoid the relative construction and probably say something like this:

Mark held Mary's hand since she was still terrified.

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  • "The hand of Mary" doesn't sound nice to me either. Still, I don't understand if the use of "who" in my example is fine or not. According to @James it is, but you write that we can "improve" it. Do you mean I better avoid it in a literary context and opt for the last example you mentioned?
    – Fra
    Sep 17, 2018 at 11:58
  • "the hand of mary", sounds like she only has one hand to me, like the "face of boe"
    – WendyG
    Sep 17, 2018 at 12:43
  • 1
    Since a significant portion of the population would either say that or have no problem understanding it, the usage should be considered grammatical. Improvements would be a matter of style and clarity.
    – TimR
    Sep 17, 2018 at 12:49
  • My feeling is that the version with "who" is understandable, since it couldn't really refer to anybody else, and people do sometimes speak this way, but it's ugly and confusing, since technically Mary isn't the object of the sentence, and it's only understandable in this particular context. If instead we read "I saw Mary's friend, who was smiling", it would only ever be taken to mean the friend was smiling, and likewise if we read "I saw the machine's handle, which was at the bottom of the well", it only means that the handle was at the bottom of the well, not the machine.
    – stangdon
    Sep 17, 2018 at 16:29
  • 1
    You could write something like Mark held still-terrified-Mary's hand. However, that's also a little strange. Sep 17, 2018 at 17:54

Yes, Your sentence and use of 'who' is fine.

Collins on-line dictionary gives one definition of who as follows:

You use who at the beginning of a relative clause when specifying the person or group of people you are talking about or when giving more information about them.

So, 'who' can only be used to specify a person or persons, it cannot be used to specify an object, e.g. a hand. The antecedent of a relative pronoun is usually the last noun used in the sentence before the relative pronoun is used. The antecedent does not have to be placed immediately before the relative pronoun, there can be other words between them. As the relative pronoun 'who' has to have a person as an antecedent, then we are looking for the last person named, or mentioned in some other manner, before the relative pronoun. In this case the last person named is Mary, so 'who' has to refer to Mary.

  • Sorry, but I don't buy this explanation. I think you are misinterpreting Collins. "You use who...when specifying the person or group of people you are talking about", but the object of the sentence is hand, not Mary. The use of who in this sentence is incorrect, since the object is hand.
    – stangdon
    Sep 17, 2018 at 16:24
  • @stangdon I agree that the use of 'who' in this sentence is irregular, given that the actual antecedent is 'Mary's' and not 'Mary', but there can be no doubt that the writer intended 'who' to apply to 'Mary' and not to her hand. I don't believe that I am misinterpreting Collins. The Collins definition does not restrict 'who' to the object of a sentence, and it includes the following example, 'The woman, who needs constant attention, is cared for by relatives'. Here, the antecedent of who (i.e., woman) is the subject of the sentence, and is the person that the sentence is talking about..
    – James
    Sep 17, 2018 at 17:05

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