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What is the grammatically correct clause?

  1. Isobel,whose brother he was,(had heard the joke before.) or

  2. Isobel,whose brother was he,(had heard the joke before.)

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    Isn't Isobel usually a female name?
    – user230
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 14:28
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    Don't even bother trying to decide which version is "correct". Just find a less roundabout way of saying it - for example, "His brother Isobel [had blad blah]". But like snailboat, I never heard of Isobel as a male name. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 14:54
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    @FumbleFingers Surely he refers to somebody mentioned previously in the discourse - perhaps the teller of the joke? Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 16:21
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    @StoneyB: Surely the fact that it does my head in to "decode" this relationship can't just be down to me being disoriented by the use of a female name in a context that can only refer to a male? I don't see any way to parse whose brother he was as anything other than a parenthetical clause - which makes it optional, in which case Isobel is the subject (the one who's heard the joke before). The only other thing we know is that Isobel is the brother of some guy mentioned earlier (his brother, whose brother he was), which both you and I presumably agree on. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 16:42
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    ...belay that! I can now see the alternative parsing. Talk about awkward phrasing! Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 17:02

2 Answers 2

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I would write it "Isobel, his brother, had heard the joke before." You might also write it "Isobel, who was his brother, had heard the joke before." I'm assuming that you are using "his brother" to describe "Isobel". Because Isobel is the subject, you would use "who" as a pronoun to refer to Isobel.

"Whose" is a possessive pronoun "He was the man whose brother had heard the joke before." Which brother had heard the joke? The man's brother.

The female gender of the name is adding a lot of confusion, so let's look at an alternative interpretation.

Isobel,whose brother he was,(had heard the joke before.)

This can mean "He was Isobel's brother and Isobel had heard the joke before.".

If we remove the clause, we get "Isobel had heard the joke before." The clause must be trying to describe Isobel's relationship to someone, and because she is female and can't be a brother, "he" must mean someone other than Isobel that is her brother.

The obvious way to rephrase would be "Isobel, his sister, had heard the joke before." Although "Isobel, whose brother he was," sounds awkward, I think that it is technically correct.

I still think that it is more likely that the poster chose a random name and a random relationship to create an example sentence to ask about, but it is possible that the poster knew how to construct "whose brother he was" but didn't know how to construct the clause as "his sister".

Without clarification from the original poster, we don't really know which is the intended meaning.

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    I hope @Dinusha Maduranga will come back and explain how this can possibly be the right answer, when the original sentences say that somebody ("he") was Isobel's brother, not that Isobel was somebody's brother. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 18:19
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    I agree with @Scott. In the asker's example, "he" is the brother of the subject of "whose". The subject of whose is "Isobel", so the sentence is attempting to describe someone as Isobel's brother, rather than describing Isobel as someone's brother. This answer looks correct because "brother" is a bi-directional relationship so the alternate writing "Isobel, his brother..." has the same ultimate meaning, but if the relationship were more uni-directional (e.g. "Isobel, whose boss he was...) then this answer's incorrectness would be more obvious.
    – talrnu
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 18:40
  • This is clearly wrong. Isobel is a woman's name so Isobel is unlikely to be anyone's brother. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 18:54
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Of the two, the following sentence is better:

Isobel, whose brother he was, had heard the joke before.

However, I wouldn't use this formulation at all, because it's really confusing - note how many people commenting and answering so far have thought that "Isobel" and "brother" refer to the same person in the sentence! To reduce confusion, I would recast this to:

Isobel, his sister, had heard the joke before.

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  • The confusion comes about only because the sentence is presented in isolation. But, yes, "Isobel, his sister, ..." would be much clearer, even if the omitted context was present. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 18:56
  • @ZsigE: I agree with everything you say, but I would add something that nobody else seems to have mentioned: the OP's second phrasing ("whose brother was he") might make sense in a lyrical/poetic or archaic context, employing an inversion as in "The King, whose humble servant am I, demands your surrender." (or something like that). ... ... It seems to me that there is some well known example of this, from a song, or maybe a Bible verse, but Googling phrases like "am I" and "was he" is remarkably unfruitful.) Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 18:58
  • @Scott: Yep, that's definitely valid too. There's at least one Biblical example of this, even in modern translations (Genesis 46:2, ESV: And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here am I.”)
    – ZsigE
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 20:55

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