"This X that/who I don't know its/their Y"?

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Carlington
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"This X that/who I don't know its/their Y"?

Postby Carlington » Wed Jan 20, 2016 1:13 am UTC

Someone posed a question earlier today in a Facebook group about language, and it's well and truly nerd-sniped me. They asked whether "This guy that/who I don't even know his job" and similar constructions were acceptable in people's Englishes. It's okay in mine (although "This guy whose job I don't even know" is better/less marked) but a lot of people reported that it was impossible in their own dialect.
My question comes in two parts. First, English speakers native or otherwise, is this construction okay for you (and what's your background in English or your dialect? General Australian English here). Second, what's going on with this construction? Someone on Facebook suggested that it looked similar to constructions in German and Norwegian, so it could be influenced by that. That comment got me thinking about how German at least marks case, so shifting around clauses like that is more acceptable (although still marked). So maybe it stands out in English because we can't mark case except through word order? I know that in French we could do this with the relative pronoun "dont" (L'homme dont je connais pas le travail) It also got me thinking about things on the level of syntax, and how it looks a little like a kind of weird passive construction almost, except we're moving object to oblique (the jobOBL of the guyOBJ becomes the guyOBL who does the jobOBJ, kinda)
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Re: "This X that/who I don't know its/their Y"?

Postby Deva » Wed Jan 20, 2016 1:24 am UTC

Native American English.

Parses the first as:
"This guy [who I don't even know] his job."
Remove bracketed words. "This guy his job." Sounds wrong.

Accepts "This guy [whose job I don't even know] ...".
Changes its form depending on the observer.

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Re: "This X that/who I don't know its/their Y"?

Postby Lazar » Wed Jan 20, 2016 1:42 am UTC

Native AmEng speaker from Massachusetts: I don't use it, although I'm familiar with it.
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Re: "This X that/who I don't know its/their Y"?

Postby Carlington » Wed Jan 20, 2016 3:48 am UTC

@Deva: I've seen people parse it that way in the Facebook thread as well. In this case, though, it's the job and not the guy that is unknown. Your example there would imply the guy being unknown, I think.
Kewangji: Posdy zwei tosdy osdy oady. Bork bork bork, hoppity syphilis bork.

Eebster the Great: What specifically is moving faster than light in these examples?
doogly: Hands waving furiously.

Please use he/him/his pronouns when referring to me.

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Re: "This X that/who I don't know its/their Y"?

Postby Deva » Wed Jan 20, 2016 7:25 am UTC

Correct. Expects a verb, adverb, or conjunction where "his job" appears. Becomes confused. (Applies more to text. Handles it better with pauses and inflection, probably.)
Changes its form depending on the observer.

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Re: "This X that/who I don't know its/their Y"?

Postby eviloatmeal » Wed Jan 20, 2016 1:12 pm UTC

Sounds like two different clauses (is that the correct cake for it?) as far as I can tell:

"This guy who, (I don't even know his job), (missing verb)"

German might be different, but it certainly wouldn't work any better in Norwegian:

"Denne karen som jeg ikke en gang vet hans jobb."

Maybe in the form:

"Denne karen som jeg ikke en gang vet jobben til."

The dangling preposition "til" ("of" - lit. "to" as in "belongs to") is correct in Norwegian.

Depending on how much it bothers you, it works just fine in English as well:

"This guy who I don't even know the job of."

It sounds fine as a spoken sentence. Spoken language is a jumbled mess anyway (try counting the words, "uhms" and "ahs" and "likes" and "sort ofs" included, while speaking to someone casually), and our brains are tuned to parse it; use all the different pauses, inflections, and nonverbal sounds as punctuation and annotation:

"This guy... who... I don't even know his job...!"

But on paper it does sound very strange, to me.
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Lazar
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Re: "This X that/who I don't know its/their Y"?

Postby Lazar » Wed Jan 20, 2016 6:03 pm UTC

Well I think it's that who, in these cases, is beginning to act as a relativizing conjunction rather than a relative pronoun. We could imagine an equivalent form like "This guy such that I don't even know his job" – which arguably meets the standard of prescriptive correctness, though it's not something that anyone would actually say. I think that at least in certain contexts, my idiolect would allow something like "This guy where I don't even know his job", with where serving the same function as who in Carlington's example.

French dont is similar, but it seems to have more of a prepositional character, most closely equivalent to an imagined form like "This guy [of whom]/[whereof] I don't even know the job".
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Re: "This X that/who I don't know its/their Y"?

Postby Xanthir » Fri Jan 22, 2016 2:54 am UTC

Raised in Texan American English, and it's valid in my ideolect. It needs to be punctuated differently in writing, tho - as eviloatmeal said, it's two clauses. You interrupt yourself after "who" and switch into an independent clause/sentence stating your lack of knowledge, and then switch back into the main sentence, with the interjection serving to implicitly provide the clause you jumped over.

Breaking out like that to state your ignorance provides a subtly different meaning than "This guy whose job I don't know...".
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