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Grammatik auf Englisch - That, Which or Who?

Schlagwörter: Grammatik auf Englisch, Englisch Grammatik, Englische Grammatik, Englisch Grammar, Gramatik auf Englisch, Englisch Gramatik, Englische Gramatik, Englisch Grammar, That Englisch, Which Englisch, Who Englisch, Relativpronomen Englisch, Englische Relativpronomen

How the words that, which and who are used in relative clauses can be a never-ending source of bewilderment. Surprisingly, there is only one rule to remember! We thought we'd take a fresh look at the issue to help make the use of these words easy to understand.

Defining and non-defining relative clauses
Take a careful look at the following examples, which all contain relative clauses (in italics):

Mary tried to use the laser printer that is broken to print the report.

In this example, the relative clause is defining. It defines exactly which laser printer (from many) Mary tried to use. There are clearly multiple printers. She tried to use the broken one.

Mary tried to use the laser printer, which is broken, to print the report.

In this example, the relative clause is nondefining. The sentence tells us that there is one laser printer (the laser printer), and that it is broken. In this case, the relative clause is providing us with additional information about the printer.

Mary, who always has trouble printing her reports, should know that a broken printer will not be very helpful.

This is another example of a non-defining relative clause. We already know we're talking about Mary. Now we learn that she always has this problem.

People who constantly have trouble printing their reports should probably be given other tasks.

Here we have another defining relative clause. Out of all the people in the office, the people who always have trouble printing reports are the ones we're talking about.

Conclusions
One thing should now be clear: unlike in German, a relative clause in English does not always require a comma! In English, commas are used to surround non-defining relative clauses (never defining relative clauses), and at the end of the sentence the last comma should be omitted.

Now that the difference between defining and non-defining relative clauses is clear, here's an easy-to-remember "golden rule" that will help you use that, which and who correctly every time. Where is also mentioned in this rule. You'll read about where under the next heading.

Common errors
Because many native speakers don't know about or understand the golden rule, the use of which for that has become common in both written and spoken language. Unfortunately, this just adds to the confusion. For example, many native speakers would write:

To make room for the spring product line, the products which were determined to be Christmas-related were sold immediately to a discount retailer.

This is incorrect and confusing! If the relative clause is defining, some of the products were sold. If it's non-defining, all of them were. Here's the correct version:

To make room for the spring product line, the products that were determined to be Christmas-related were sold immediately to a discount retailer.

Or you could use which and commas to create a non-defining relative clause.

Another common mistake is to use which instead of who:

The receptionist which answered the phone is a part-time employee.


This is incorrect. Which should never be used for a person. It's rude!

Yet another error is to use which instead of where when the action implies a location, or to put commas around where in a defining relative clause:

The hotel, which we stayed in, was near the airport.

The hotel, where we stayed, was near the airport.


In both of these examples, the relative clause is defining and the action implies a location: Where should be used and the commas are incorrect:

The hotel where we stayed was near the airport.

Note that which is correct when a location is not implied.

Tourists prefer hotels which offer excellent weekend packages.

And where with commas is correct in a non-defining relative clause:

The Gramercy Hotel, where thousands of tourists stay each year, has been sold.

Writing with precision
Native speakers who care about the quality of their writing will do something extraordinary when they've finished writing. They'll go on a "which hunt", which is a pun on "witch hunt" (Hexenjagd). It implies a process of hunting down incorrect uses of which and replacing them with that or who. We recommend that you go on your own "which hunt" whenever you review your writing!

Be careful with the use of commas in relative clauses. A comma can make a big difference in meaning:

The people at the party who were given a bottle of wine were very happy.

The people at the party, who were given a bottle of wine, were very happy.


In the first example, which contains a defining relative clause, only some of the people received a bottle of wine. In the second, which contains a non-defining relative clause, all of them did!

Schlagwörter: Grammatik auf Englisch, Englisch Grammatik, Englische Grammatik, Englisch Grammar, Gramatik auf Englisch, Englisch Gramatik, Englische Gramatik, Englisch Grammar, That Englisch, Which Englisch, Who Englisch, Relativpronomen Englisch, Englische Relativpronomen

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