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Which would be best / acceptable?

"He saw people, animals and buildings THAT / WHICH had suffered greatly."

As I see it, there are 3 subjects; people, animals and buildings. The grammar rules I know state we must use "who + people" "which + things", etc. And because it is a defining relative clause, I can also use "that".

So do the mixed subjects (people and things) mean I have to use "that" in this sentence, due to the fact we don't use "which" for people?

marked as duplicate by tchrist, Andrew Leach, MetaEd, aedia λ, Kris Feb 11 '13 at 10:20

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  • 1
    They're not subjects; they're direct objects of saw. And there ought to be a comma after animals if you're writing it. Other than that, either which or that will work. In cases where either is allowed, which is slightly more formal because it's more unmistakable and harder to elide, while that frequently gets worn down to just an extra syllabic bump in the speech stream. – John Lawler Feb 10 '13 at 15:00
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    What do you mean we do not use which for people? That is not true. Additionally, neither of those merits the superlative “best” — since you present a dilemma between two alternatives. As for comparing which of the two is the “better”, this is a matter of dispute; it depends on how neoprescritivist you care to be. – tchrist Feb 10 '13 at 16:09
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    @user37373: punctuation doesn't change meaning. Punctuation can sometimes signal intonation, which does change meaning. Commas are marked by intonation dips, which help the phrase cohere. And that works for everything, so that's why it's more common. – John Lawler Feb 10 '13 at 17:16
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    Some people have trained themselves as readers to supply the intonation which is not provided by a missing comma between the last two items in a list. Leaving it out is either known as "the Oxford comma" or as not the Oxford comma; I can never remember which is which. But it's a style to leave it out and make the reader reach for it; it's controversial, if you can believe it. I think that's rather silly, but the same is true for most common grammar and usage controversies. – John Lawler Feb 10 '13 at 19:10
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    Change in intonation is like a change in a word; it might make it nonsense or it might make it different. But punctuation is not language; punctuation is technology, and medieval technology at that. It has no more meaning than a gearshift lever, and can't change meaning. – John Lawler Feb 10 '13 at 21:25

I don't think that buildings can suffer, greatly or otherwise. It is true that you can use that with both animate and inanimate objects in a restrictive (aka definining) relative clause, but the verb suffer does not collocate, at least not intransitively, with an inanimate object qua subject. (This is a little confusing, but when I refer to an object in this post I am referring to a thing as opposed to either a person or the object of a verb/preposition.) I have seen transitive constructions with inanimate objects qua subject, such as The building suffered great damage from the bombing, however; but it sounds quite unnatural intransitively. Thus, I suggest rewording the sentence this way:

He saw people and animals that had suffered greatly, and several/many destroyed/damaged buildings.

The differences between several/many and destroyed/damaged would each be a matter of degree. If the buildings in question have been completely destroyed, to the point of there being nothing left structurally, you could use the adjectives levelled or razed.

One other alternative for people and animals that had suffered greatly would be wounded/injured people and animals. The choice between wounded and injured depends on whether, on the one hand, the harm or injury is caused by combat or some other kind of weapon-related violence, which collocates with wounded, or, on the other, an accident of some kind, which usually collocates with injured. (Injured can also also collocate with combat or other kinds of weapon-related injuries, so long as the context is clear.) If you want to strengthen wounded, change it to severely wounded.

I hope this helps.

  • I think recasting this sentence is the best way to untie this grammar knot. Bravo, Shawn. – Martin Burch Feb 10 '13 at 15:51
  • I'm not unhappy about using suffer with an inanimate subject ( suffer - get worse; "His grades suffered" : Based on WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. © 2003-2012 Princeton University) - but using mixed sentient and inanimate subjects with the same verb used literally and metaphorically (taking animate suffering as the root meaning) does sound very awkward. Of course, the example could easily be tweaked to He saw people, animals and buildings that all reminded him of his native country. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 10 '13 at 16:23
  • @EdwinAshworth Easily? Do you seriously think that "He saw people, animals and buildings that all reminded him of his native country" has even the slightest similarity to "He saw people and animals that had suffered greatly"? I have more than once been half-asleep at the switch when responding to grammar questions online, but your answer strikes me as a full-monty. If I, on the other hand, am the one who is half or fully asleep, I will eat my hat, of course. – Shawn Mooney Feb 10 '13 at 16:35
  • @Shawn Moody - I am aware, of course, that buildings don't suffer as we do (intransitively). That's obvious. But the original writer had written a creative piece about returning to his family home after a childhood spent abroad. So I think, in this case, we should give the guy some artistic license and focus on the original question. – user37373 Feb 10 '13 at 18:02
  • @Shawn Mooney: The key word is example: user 37373 was asking about one point of grammar and his example gave rise to a secondary debate (about how the word suffer may legitimately be used). I was saying that his example sentence could be tweaked to avoid the secondary issue, not that the actual sentence could be sensibly rephrased the way I suggested. I'm rather alarmed that you misconstrued my suggestion. It's the whole basis of sensible analysis - tackle one issue at a time as far as possible. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 10 '13 at 20:06

He saw people, animals and buildings that had suffered greatly.

Let's unpack your concerns. First, which is definitely not the right choice here. I cite The New York Times' style guide:

Use that, not which, in a restrictive clause — a clause necessary to the reader’s understanding of the sentence ...

Now, what about saying who when people (or animals) are involved? We have had a good discussion on this site about that already, and it says that is perfectly fine when referring to any subject, including people.

Finally, what about John Lawler's comment on commas? That'd be the Oxford Comma. Using an extra comma here is not necessary to reduce ambiguity, so I say leave it out. We have had a long discussion of the merits of said comma on this site as well.

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