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In the following sentence: "My gratitude goes to my dear friend for turning our coffee breaks into interesting and thought-provoking conversations, which were essential to maintain sanity and from which I learned a lot," is which referring to coffee breaks or to conversations?

Thanks in advance.

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  • You can learn a lot from conversations rather than from coffee breaks.
    – Graffito
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 10:34
  • @Graffito I meant grammatically.
    – hvf
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 10:36
  • In that sentence, grammar cannot help. If you say "Thanks to share your views on this topic, which are/is ...", the "which" would refer either to views(are) or topic(is). If both words were singular or plural, you must then rely on semantic to determine the word referred by "which".
    – Graffito
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 10:46
  • I see. Thanks. What should I do if I want to make sure the reader understands that the conversations were the ones essential to maintain sanity and from which I learned a lot?
    – hvf
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 10:51
  • " ... turning our coffee breaks into interesting and thought-provoking conversations. These discussions were essential to maintain sanity and I learned a lot from them."
    – Graffito
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 10:55

2 Answers 2

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The most natural reading of the sentence suggests that "which" refers to "interesting and thought-provoking conversations". To make this more clear you could remove the comma before "which".

In the particular context of your sentence you're implying that the coffee-breaks turned into the deeper conversations. In that case the assignation of "which" is less relevant; in effect you're talking about both things as a single evolving item.

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    I would advise against removing the comma. In a sentence that long, punctuation maintains sanity. If you do remove the comma, then conventional practice would involve replacing 'which' with 'that', which arguably clarifies the literal meaning but the sentence still becomes a horribly long, twisty-turny thing. I'm a punctuation fan.
    – Captain Cranium
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 11:37
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The answer is as clear as it looks at first sight: 'conversations, which were essential to sanity'. This is grammar to do with the architecture of the comma. 'Coffee breaks' is too distant to intrude.

I suppose that the potential difficulty, and the reason you are asking this question at all, is that some people are not skilled readers. If you really want to guard against that, then I agree with Graffito's comment: you can smoothly rewrite the sentence. Maybe something like...

My gratitude goes to my dear friend for turning our coffee breaks into interesting and thought-provoking conversations. Those exchanges were essential for sanity, under the circumstances, and I also learned a great deal from them.

It's a basic essay-writing Thing. If your sentence becomes in any way cumbersome, then just turn it into two. If it can't survive that, then there is probably something wrong with the point that you are trying to make.

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