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“Som” eller “att”

Hej hej!

It happens quite often, that my students are confused over when to use “som” and when to use “att”. Today I’ll try my best to explain in what situations you should use the two.

“Som” as a relative pronoun

A relative clause is a sub- clause (“bisats” in Swedish) that gives you more information about the noun in the main clause (“huvudsats” in Swedish). Let us take a look at an example:

Jag har en hund. Hunden gillar köttbullar.

(I have a dog. The dog likes meatballs.)

Instead of having two sentences (two main clauses) we can connect them with a relative pronoun and get one main clause and one relative clause (a sub-clause). The sentence will then look like this:

Jag har en hund som gillar köttbullar.

I have a dog who likes meatballs.

Relative clauses in English are mostly introduced  by “who”, “which” or “that”. In Swedish they are in most cases introduced by “som”. This word never changes its form, regardless if the noun in the main clause is en, ett or plural (yay). Here are some more examples of “som”:

Sten har en syster som bor i Malmö.

(Sten has a sister who lives in Malmö.)

Ann leker med dockorna som hon fick i julklapp.

(Anna is playing with the dolls that she got for Christmas.)

Min cykel, som jag fick i julklapp, har 21 växlar.

(My  bike, which I got for Christmas, has 21 speeds.)

If we already have a subject in the sub-clause the word ”som” can be left out. Take a look at these sentences:

Mannen som ni söker är inte här.

(The man (who) you are looking for is not here.)

Mannen  ni söker är inte här.

(The man you are looking for is not here.)

“Som” when comparing

We also use the word “som” when comparing. In such a case “som” means “as”  in English. Here’s one example:

Han är lika lång som jag.

(He is as tall as I am.)

When should we use “att”?

It is not unusual that a word has only one meaning in one language, when you would use two different words in different language. For example we know that when we say “think” in English, we need to choose between three words in Swedish “tycker, tänker and tror”. The same thing can happen to for example conjunctions and prepositions.

In Swedish “att” means:

  1. “to” as in “to run”, “to eat”, “to drink” etc. The function of “att” is in these cases being an infinitive marker. Att springa, att äta, att dricka. We will see att in an sentence like this one:

Pojken tycker om att leka med sin hund.

(The boy likes to play with his dog.)

2. Att as in “that” when “that” is used as a conjunction between a main clause (huvudsats) or sub-clause (bisats). Here’s an example:

Bengt säger att det är varmt ute.

(Bengt is saying that it is warm outside.)

Have fun learning Swedish!

Sara the Swedish Teacher

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6 responses to ““Som” eller “att””

  1. Marcin says:

    Is it relevant if we put a comma before “som”? For example:
    “Min cykel, som jag fick i julklapp, har 21 växlar.”
    Does this sentence mean that I have only one bicycle and the fact that I got it for Christmas is just additional information? If there were no commas, would it mean that I have more bicycles? Are the rules for commas in Swedish similar to those in English?

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    • Hej Marcin and Rickard!

      After checking an English grammar, it seems to me like the “som” in the sentence without comma can be translated to “that”, and the “som” in the sentence with comma can be translated to “which”.

      Min cykel som jag fick i julklapp har 21 växlar
      My bike that I got for Christmas has 21 speeds.

      Min cykel, som jag fick i julklapp, har 21 växlar.
      My bike, which I got for Christmas, has 21 speeds.

      You can drop “som” if you already have a subject in the sub-clause. Example:
      Ange i ditt CV vilka språk (som) du behärskar.

      If “som” is the subject in the sub-clause you need to keep it:
      Presentera de efarenheter som är intressanta med tanke på tjänsten du söker.

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  2. Rickard says:

    Marcin: As a native Swede, I think you are on to something. Your example sentence does indeed suggest that the speaker owns a single bicycle, and the commas serve to strengthen that impression. However, I believe the combination of the possessive and singular in “min cykel” suggests that there is only one bicycle even without commas, so it would not be natural to use that sentence if you owned several bicycles. You would rather say “Cykeln (som) jag fick i julklapp har 21 växlar”. (I put the “som” in parantheses there, because it is not really needed, and would probably be dropped by most native speakers.)

    The use of commas in Swedish is not very standardized, and partly a matter of style. There are rules, but where a rule says that you could place a comma in a certain position, it is more of an option than a requirement. The rules for English may be more firm, but I probably don’t know them well enough to say that…

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  3. Rima says:

    I wish I had found this site when I was first starting out with learning Swedish! There seems to be a lot more online now than when I first made the move!

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  4. Becky Walkden says:

    Hej stranger! Excellent post as usual but I have one question. In this part here where you said,
    `Mannen som ni söker är inte här.
    (The man (who) you are looking for is not here.)
    Mannen ni söker är inte här.`
    what is the subject in the subclause? The man is the subject here. Maybe it is so long since I studies sentence structure, English OR Swedish I am just not getting it.
    Anyway, you explained som and att excellently (but I would have been surprised if you didn´t)
    Med vänlig hälsning
    Din student Becky

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