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Below is the question and the answer is "what."

Xerosis is a technical medical term for ___ most people refer to as dry skin.

From my instinct, I understood why "what" should be an answer. The problem is I can't explain why "which" can't be an answer.

If I chose "which" for this question, then "which" indicated the word "term," but it couldn't be like that. I need an explanation based on grammar.

marked as duplicate by Drew, sumelic, Mari-Lou A, NVZ, Hank Mar 6 '17 at 19:34

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    "Xerosis" is a medical term which means dry skin. Xerosis is a medical term for dry skin. Xerosis is a medical term for what people call dry skin. – Centaurus Mar 5 '17 at 19:51
  • The possible duplicate deals with 'what' and 'which' in questions. This is different. – Dan Mar 5 '17 at 23:06
  • @sumelic - I've just been looking. It's clearly relevant although rather weak on 'which'. And the focus on 'fused relative noun phrases' is a bit diversionary here where the question is about when and how to choose between 'what' and 'which'. – Dan Mar 5 '17 at 23:11
  • @Dan: Isn't "what" called a "fused" relative because, as the definition you cited says, it means "that which, the thing which, something that"? I thought that is the explanation for the difference -- "what" can act grammatically like a "fusion" of a noun phrase + a relative pronoun, while "which" can't (except for in some very limited circumstances, apparently). – sumelic Mar 5 '17 at 23:17
  • @sumelic - I think you are right. I guess I think that F.E.'s answer explains how 'what' can work but it does not really address which. And the OP seems to me to be confused by how and when to use 'what' and 'which'. – Dan Mar 5 '17 at 23:32
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Your meaning can be communicated using either which or what -

Xerosis is a technical medical term which most people refer to as dry skin.

Xerosis is a technical medical term for what most people refer to as dry skin.

In the first case, which introduces an additional statement about the antecedent, the sense of the principal clause being complete without the relative clause; thus sometimes equivalent to ‘and that' (OED).

In the second phrase what means that which, the thing which, something that (OED).

In these examples, both what and which are relative pronouns. Note, however, that they have different meanings/functions and may not simply be swapped. Both words have long histories and are used a great deal in a variety of ways!!

  • You have removed the word for in the first sentence. which won’t work in OP’s sentence as stated. – Jim Mar 5 '17 at 23:23
  • @Jim - yes, I have. The OP is having trouble deciding whether to use what or which. It seems helpful to show how both words may be used to communicate the intended meaning and then to explain how they are different. – Dan Mar 5 '17 at 23:28
  • +1 for 'for what' = 'for the condition that' (OWTTE); the 'duplicate' doesn't address this. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 5 '17 at 23:41
  • So the reason for choosing 'what' is because of 'for?' As far as I understand, this preposition 'for' makes difference, and that's why you took away 'for' in the first sentence. Do I understand it in a right way? – Mayjio Mar 6 '17 at 2:52
  • Yes. Using 'for' changes the sentence structure. – Dan Mar 6 '17 at 8:57

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