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for hours I've been scouring the internet for some sentences/grammar rules which bother me. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the answer, and that's why I decided to ask here.

  • Are sentences 1) and 2) correct? If not then why? Is sentence nr 5) the best way (and the most natural way for a native speaker) to express the idea?

" to go by a train

  1. 1) The train by which I went was delayed

  2. 2) the train by which I travelled was delayed

  3. 3) The train which I went by was delayed
  4. 4) The train which I travelled by was delayed
  5. 5) The train I travelled/was on was delayed"

Best regards

  • 1
    All 5 are grammatical. The technical term for you're looking for is Pied-Piping. – John Lawler Feb 8 '15 at 15:41
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"to go by a train" I think the first problem is that we don't say "to go by a train" - the expression is "to go by train" (to go by car, bus, road, plane).

I personally would never use "travelled by the/a train" in this context either - I travelled by the train (that left at 10:00/that was delayed) sounds strange, though is perhaps ok (see comment below) - I (again personally) would be more likely to say I travelled with, or I was on, or I took.

Google, however, produces lots of examples of "the train by which" so I guess "the train by which I was travelling/travelled was delayed" - is also correct

Alternatives:

  • The train I was on was delayed
  • The train I was travelling on was delayed
  • My train was delayed

I went by a train means I walked past a train to my (Irish) ears...

Edit: "the train by which I travelled" gets just over 5000 hits; "the train by which I was travelling" only six! ("traveled": 3350; "was traveling": one) - so actually not so common after all - made a mistake when I said "lots of examples" above.

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The Main Clause

All five (six actually) constructions clearly communicate the main idea:

The train was delayed.


The Relative Clause

All five relative clause constructions also clearly communicate I was traveling on the train that was delayed:

1) by which I went:

Train is modified by I went, using which as the object of the prepositional phrase:

  • When we use whom or which the preposition sometimes comes at the beginning of the clause:

You were talking about a book. I haven’t read it. >>>... I haven’t read the book about which you were talking.

This is a perfectly legitimate construction, even though it can sound awkward.

2) by which I travelled

Train is modified by I traveled, using which as the object of the prepositional phrase. Again, a perfectly legitimate construction, replacing went with the equivalent verb travelled.

3) which I went by

Train is modified by I went, using which as the object of the prepositional phrase, with the preposition following the verb phrase:

  • as object of a preposition. When the relative pronoun is the object of a preposition we usually put the preposition after the verb ...

You were talking about a book. I haven’t read it. >>> I haven’t read the book which you were talking about.

It is perfectly acceptable to put the preposition after the verb in a relative clause.

4) which I travelled by

Train is modified by I traveled, using which as the object of the prepositional phrase, replacing went with the equivalent verb travelled.

5a) I travelled on

Train is modified by I traveled, reducing which from the prepositional phrase:

  • When the relative pronoun is the object of a preposition we usually leave it out:

That’s the house my parents live in.

The missing relative pronoun is clearly understood.

5b) I was on

Train is modified by I was, reducing which from the prepositional phrase, replacing travelled with the verb was. I went by would work but it might create a little confusion between walking by the train (local), and traveling by the train (instrumental).


The Prepositions

Although by would not work with the verb was, both by and on work just fine with both travelled and went.

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My train was delayed - is probably the most natural way for a native speaker to express the idea.

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1 is no good. 2 is a little better than 1. 3 is no good. 4 is a little better than 3. 5 is perfectly okay in both versions.

3 is interesting, because it sounds better when "that" is substituted for "which": "The train that I went by was delayed." (Not good, but better.) There is an analysis popular among syntacticians according to which relative "that" is not a pronoun, but rather is a relative clause introducer. That suggests that what is wrong with 3 is, in part, removing the "which" from its original position in the by-phrase, because that doesn't happen with "that" (if it merely introduces the relative clause).

4 is also better with "that" instead of "which".

  • You are entitled to your opinion, Greg, but your opinion should be supported by reputable research or direct ELU reputation (like the 55K of John Lawler). – ScotM Feb 8 '15 at 19:36
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    ... Reputation on ELU? You should read some of the articles Professor Lawler has authored! Though I admit, my downvote is not just because he says 'All 5 are grammatical', but because I think they are too. Though I'd only use the first two where I considered a formal register to be suitable. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 8 '15 at 22:19

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