Temporary reopen note:

Pleas note that this other question here does not address what or compare it to which or that:

Original Question

  • Which sentence would you use more, which is just simple wrong and why?

This is the speech, that my father wrote.
This is the speech, which my father wrote.
This is the speech, what my father wrote.

This is the speech, that my father wrote down.
This is the speech, which my father wrote down.
This is the speech, what my father wrote down.

  • Hi Koraiek, proofreading is off-topic on this site. Anyway, 'what' doesn't fit in your sentences!! – user66974 Jan 27 '15 at 10:28
  • 1
    Drop the comma. Otherwise, the first two are OK, the third would be considered "illiterate" in the US. Normally the "down" would not be used in this context (though it's appropriate in other uses of "wrote"). – Hot Licks Jan 27 '15 at 13:15
  1. This is the speech, that my father wrote (down).
  2. This is the speech, which my father wrote (down).
  3. This is the speech, what my father wrote (down).

The vocabulary

The difference between write and write down is quite subtle. Write down implies that whatever was written existed in some other form before it was written down. So it might have been a fully formed idea, or someone may have read it out. Write on its own just means write. If we just use wrote, it gives the impression that it was actually the father's speech. However, if we use wrote down it might be someone else's speech that was written down. For example, a speech from the television.

The grammar

There are some problems with all of the sentences as they stand. These sentences almost definitely contain so-called defining relative clauses, and so don't need a comma.

In defining relative clauses like this we can use either which or that as a relative word:

  • This is the speech that my father wrote.
  • This is the speech which my father wrote.

Here the word speech is the antecedent for the relative clause. There is a gap in the relative clause after the verb wrote where we would expect an object. We understand that gap as having the same identity as the speech:

  • This is the speech(i) that my father wrote ____ (i).
  • This is the speech(i) which my father wrote ____ (i).

Notice that the relative clauses here are modifying the word speech. They are turning it into one big noun phrase. "This is the speech" Which speech? "The [speech that my father wrote]".

However, we cannot use a relative clause with what to modify a noun in this way. We only use the relative word what when there is no antecedent for a relative clause:

  • *This is the speech what my father wrote. (Ungrammatical - what with antecedent)
  • This is what my father wrote. (Grammatical - no antecedent)

In the second sentence above, what does not have an antecedent. The relative does not have an antecedent. Instead the whole clause is the complement of the verb BE. The first example is ungrammatical because it uses what with an antecedent.

The Original Poster's Question:

The following sentence is incorrect in standard English because it uses an antecedent for the relative word what:

  • This is the speech what my father wrote.

The following, however, are both fine:

  • This is the speech that my father wrote.
  • This is the speech which my father wrote.

In this case because there is a subject after the relative word (that or which), we can leave out the relative word:

  • This is the speech my father wrote.

Hope this is helpful!

[Note: Some bogus usage guides say that which should not be used for defining relative clauses. This is rubbish. It is harmful to the study of Englsih grammar, and it has never been true. All the best writers have used both which and that for defining relative clauses.]

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  • I found the following sentence: "Please note that only after this event window's Activated event will be fired which actually makes sense". I feel like "what" is a right choice in this case. Is author right about using "which"? It seems like here we have smth. like a hidden antecedent. – EngineerSpock Mar 13 '16 at 12:04

In both cases I would never use the "what" sentences.

There's a very subtle difference in using "that" vs. "which". The word "that" refers to something else, perhaps it is a physical object which we point to. "He pointed to that speech". "He wrote that speech". It is a definite statement with a single object in mind.

The use of the word "which" may be used as a conjunction. It's a pause but clarifies the action. Other coordinating conjunctions are "and" and "but". If we said ... "and" my father wrote it down we are implying "it was good that it was written down". Likewise, when we say "which" my father wrote down we are just stating "A speech was written and my father wrote it down".

Any English speaker would understand either use.

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  • Good points, I'll look them up. I am not an English major, but have spoken the language over 50 years. – John Peters Jan 27 '15 at 14:19
  • I was wrong, "Which" is not a coordinating conjunction, but may be used as a conjunction that will tie relative clauses together. Indeed it is a relative pronoun. "That" is very much a determiner... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Determiner – John Peters Jan 27 '15 at 14:45
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    I'll delete my comments. Why don't you update your post? :-) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 27 '15 at 15:39

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