Das ist es, was wir in der Welt ändern müssen.

What does was refer to: das or es? And why?

  • I don't get the intention of the question. es is optional and anyway referring to the same as das. In writing the sentence would likely boil down to Das müssen wir in der Welt ändern. Your sentence sounds like thinking took place while speaking (P. S. Umlauts are not optional in German. ) – guidot Mar 4 at 9:47
  • What? The buddha himself said it. This is a written sentence. not speech – user21669 Mar 4 at 9:50
  • I'm somewhat sceptical, whether Buddha wrote German. More context would a benefit for the question anyway. – guidot Mar 4 at 9:56
  • Your question boils down to what the object of the main sentence is. I'd say "es". – Roland Mar 4 at 10:02
  • @guidot Maybe this clarifies the question for you? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antecedent_(grammar) – jonathan.scholbach Mar 4 at 10:35

This is actually an interesting question, because the test of @jonathan.scholbach's and my choice, the replacement test, yields opposite results!

In the following, I will use as a replacer die Langeweile, simply because @jonathan.scholbach used it, too.

Replacing das

When I read the question for the first time, I thought to replace das. The result is as follows:

Das Die Langeweile ist es, was die wir in der Welt ändern müssen.

Conclusion: The relative pronoun die refers to die Langeweile. By analogy, the relative pronoun was should refer to das.

Replacing es

User @jonathan.scholbach chose to replace es, and got the following result:

Das ist es die Langeweile, was die wir in der Welt ändern müssen.

Conclusion: The relative pronoun die refers to die Langeweile. By analogy, the relative pronoun was should refer to es.

Bottom line

We get opposite results depending on what is replaced (das versus es). Therefore, either the replacement test is not appropriate to figure out which is the one antecedent of the relative pronoun, or—this is the interpretation that I prefer—both are the antecendents of the relative pronoun.

  • Note you can replace "es" with nothing and still have a valid sentence with the same meaning. "was" still must refer to something, so it's obviously "das" – tofro Mar 6 at 13:34
  • @tofro, good point. – Björn Friedrich Mar 6 at 14:08

Since the given sentence lacks context, which leaves open what das refers to, I will use the following example with a noun phrase subject. I use (es) to indicate that the sentence is fine with or without es. The meaning of the sentence is not affected by its presence or absence.

Eine gutwillige, achtungsvolle Haltung – das ist (es), was der Anstand von uns fordert. (Haluschka)

I propose analysing the clause starting with was as a free relative clause. This is a term from traditional grammar that is a bit misleading in that it suggests that free relative clauses are a special kind of relative clause. However, they behave completely differently.

  • Formally, free relative clauses do not have an antecedent and serve as the argument of a verb, for instance as a subject or object clause.

  • Semantically, free relative clauses introduce new referents, similar to the way definite noun phrases do.

Let's look at some English examples, with the direct object marked in bold.

  1. He took back his words. (noun phrase as object)

  2. He took back the words he said. (with a "regular" relative clause)

  3. He took back what he had said. (free relative clause as object)

Observe how the free relative clause replaces a noun phrase, functions as a direct object and introduces a new referent, i.e. "the things he had said".

Just like German, English allows the sentence in 3. to be modified as follows:

  1. He took back that which he had said.

This sentence is synonymous with 3. It cannot be parallel to 2., as that in 4. does not introduce a referent and cannot stand alone:

*He took back that.

(Note that he took that back is obviously grammatical, but completely different: in this instance, that refers back to something that has been introduced earlier, which it does not do in 4.)

One can therefore either group 4. with 3., or treat it as a construction sui generis. I prefer the former, even if that stands in conflict with the traditional definition of a free relative clause in that the relative pronoun which being connected to the pronoun that.

Now let's move back to German and the modified example sentence.

Eine gutwillige, achtungsvolle Haltung ist (es), was der Anstand von uns fordert.

If es is missing, the bolded clause is a free relative clause functioning as the subject complement of sein.

If es is present, it has no referential value: neither does it refer back to anything mentioned previously, nor does it introduce anything new. I suggest thinking of it as a Korrelat: a word that simply announces that an argument clause is following, in this case a free relative clause.

Using the same analysis on the original sentence

Das ist (es), was wir in der Welt ändern müssen.

we get the following meaning

That (which was mentioned previously) has the property of being the thing that we need to change in the world.

with the thing that being the meaning contributed by the free relative clause, or specifically the (es) was: the introduction of a new referent.

  • ", was wir in der Welt ändern müssen" ist kein freier Relativsatz. Das erkennt man daran, dass der Satz ("Das ist es") auch ohne den Relativsatz perfekt funktioniert - Er dient deshalb nicht als Subjekt oder Objekt und ist deswegen ein abhängiger Relativsatz (von "Das"). – tofro Mar 7 at 17:00
  • @tofro Ein Beispiel: (Das) was er sagt, ist falsch und (das) was du sagst, ist es auch. Hier wäre es = falsch und der was-Satz auf das bezogen und damit nicht frei (wenn auch aufgrund der Bedeutungslosigkeit von das dieses ohne Weiteres weggelassen werden kann und der was-Satz dann wieder frei ist). Ich habe absichtlich ein anderes Beispiel gewählt, in dem der was-Satz sich nicht auf das Subjekt beziehen läßt und vermute, daß der Satz von OP sich parallel verhält. Leider hat OP keinen Kontext angegeben. – David Vogt Mar 7 at 17:13
  • Addendum: Aus dem Argument, daß das ist es grammatisch ist, folgt erst einmal nichts. Wie bei allen Proben, die hier schon versucht worden sind, muß natürlich gezeigt werden, daß bei Substituierung oder Weglassung die grammatischen Verhältnisse sich nicht ändern. In das ist es ist es das Prädikativ, daraus folgt doch nicht, daß es in das ist (es), was mich stört auch eins ist. – David Vogt Mar 7 at 17:16
  • Daraus folgt eigentlich nur, dass "Das ist, was mich stört" und "Das ist es, was mich stört" zwar sinngemäß der gleiche Satz sind, aber verschiedene Prädikative haben. Ersteres hat tatsächlich einen freien Relativsatz als Prädikativ, zweiteres nicht. – tofro Mar 7 at 18:09
  • @tofro Und was ist das Prädikativ bei zweiterem? – David Vogt Mar 7 at 18:19

We can answer this by making a replacement test:

Das ist die Langeweile, die wir in der Welt ändern müssen.

Here we can clearly see, that the relative pronoun changes gender in accordance with Langeweile and not with das, indicating that Langeweile is the antecendent of the pronoun.

If we take this back to your sentence, this leads us to say, that grammatically, the antecendent of the relative pronoun in your sentence is es. The referents of das and es however are the same.


But also see the answer of Björn which proves me wrong by showing that my analysis is simply incomplete.

  • 1
    @BjörnFriedrich You are right. Added a hint to my answer. – jonathan.scholbach Mar 6 at 10:33
  • It makes no sentence to replace a free relative clause by a relative clause. – David Vogt Mar 6 at 12:03
  • 1
    @DavidVogt I don't understand what you are saying. – jonathan.scholbach Mar 6 at 12:22
  • 1
    Your replacement test doesn't make a lot of sense (rather: is invalid). Reson: "es" can simply be omitted from the original sentence without changing anything. – tofro Mar 6 at 13:33
  • @tofro Yes. You should downvote the answer. – jonathan.scholbach Mar 7 at 10:15

Note the "es" in your sentence is completely optional and can be omitted without changing the meaning, as in

Das ist, was wir in der Welt ändern müssen.

In the above, it is obvious that "was" refers to "das" (there's nothing else to refer to). Why should the reference change when something optional ("es") is added?

  • What is the subject complement of sein if the was clause refers to the subject? – David Vogt Mar 7 at 17:43

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