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Grammar - Die Hexenjagd

Schlagwörter: Grammatik, Grammar, Which, That, oder who


Whether to use that, which or who in a relative clause is a confusing decision even the best-educated native English speakers can find themselves grappling with.

Consider the following sentences:

A project manager is a person which keeps things on track.

Our boss showed up at the executive dinner wearing a suit which was much too big for him.

Both of these sentences may sound correct, but they are not. The problem with each is the incorrect use of which.

The trick to getting it right is to memorise three simple rules and use them religiously. Then – when you’re reviewing your text – go on a “which hunt” ( a wordplay on witch hunt or Hexenjagd ) to ensure you’ve got things right. More on this below.

Creating relative clauses

Relative clauses are constructs used to join two sentences into a single sentence. The rule for creating the relative clause differs based on whether the subject it refers to is a person or a thing.

When it refers to a person

We hired a new marketing manager. She can speak six languages. We hired a new marketing manager who can speak six languages.

The man is one of our oldest and best customers. He just phoned.

The man who just phoned is one of our oldest and best customers.

These relative clauses refer to human subjects. In this case, use who.


Incorrect

We hired a new marketing manager which can speak six languages.

We hired a new marketing manager that can speak six languages.

The man that just phoned is one of our oldest and best customers.

When it refers to a thing

Our offices are located in the factory. It is on the corner of Delancy and Vine.

Our offices are located in the factory that is on the corner of Delancy and Vine.

A ball mill is a machine. It grinds substances into fine powders. A ball mill is a machine that grinds substances into fine powders.

These relative clauses refer to subjects that are things. In this case, use that.

Incorrect:

Our offices are located in the factory which is on the corner of Delancy and Vine. A ball mill is a machine which grinds substances into fine powders.

That versus which

That is the restrictive pronoun. It defines which thing. Which is the non-restrictive pronoun. It is used to add additional information about a thing that has already been defined or is known. It is very important to use these words correctly. For example:

We’ll be taking the train that leaves at four in the morning.

Here we find out which train we’ll be taking: the early train, not one of the later ones.

We’ll be taking the train, which leaves at four in the morning.

Here, we find out we’re taking the train, perhaps instead of another form of transportation. The fact that it leaves at four in the morning is simply additional information about the train. The relative clause in this sentence is thus non-restrictive and functions as a parenthetical expression. Note the use of the comma. In English, commas must be used to enclose non-restrictive relative clauses.

Summary of the rules

• Use who when referring to people in restrictive or non-restrictive relative clauses. Follow the comma rule if the clause is non-restrictive.

• Use that when referring to things (including non-human, living creatures) in restrictive or non-restrictive relative clauses. Follow the comma rule if the clause is non-restrictive.

• Use which only innon-restrictive relative clauses that refer to things. Never use which to refer to human subjects. Relative clauses using which must always follow the comma rule.

Going on a “which hunt”

For some reason, possibly because it sounds correct, native speakers will often incorrectly use the word which instead of that in a restrictive relative clause. When reviewing their writing for correctness, many will “go on a which hunt” to remove the defining whiches and replace them with that or who, depending on the subject. To improve the quality of your writing, include a “which hunt” from now on in your review process!

Schlagwörter: Grammatik, Grammar, Which, That, oder who

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