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This is how I would say the following sentence, but when I write it in a formal e-mail, how can I replace the "was" which seems too colloquial for this register:

Der Cataloger macht genau das, was er beschrieben hat.

If I replace it with "das", it sounds misconstructed and doesn't seem to express the same idea:

Der Cataloger macht genau das, das er beschrieben hat.

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

It's definitely not colloquial to use was to introduce a relative clause in your example. Since your relative clause refers to a neuter, undetermined personal pronoun (das), starting the relative clause with was is grammatically correct. Regarding the pronoun was, see also Duden and canoo.

But it's important that it may be correct to introduce a relative clause using das. It depends mainly on the word the relative clause refers to (its object). Some examples:

1) Der Cataloger erfüllt genau die Aufgabe, die er erfüllen soll.

2) Der Cataloger tut nichts, was er nicht tun soll.

3) Der Cataloger liefert genau das Ergebnis, das er liefern soll.

In those examples, 1) has a determined feminine object; 2) has an undetermined neuter object; and 3) has a determined neuter object of the relative clause. So, 3) is an example where das would be correct to introduce the relative clause.

If you want to maintain the verb "beschreiben", you could use:

Der Cataloger arbeitet genau so wie beschrieben.

I assume that the "cataloger" is some sort of software component. If it's about a human fulfilling a certain task, however, other phrasing may be preferable. A (purely academic?) example:

Der Politiker tut genau das, was er im Wahlkampf versprochen hat [zu tun].

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