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    • Join Date: Dec 2008
    • Posts: 3
    #1

    what vs that

    I have just begun doing some volunteer ESL tutoring.

    I was wondering if anyone has a resource with a good breakdown of when we use the word "what" versus the word "that."

    A student showed me the sentence "That you spent some time in a certain city is amazing!" She wanted to know why we use "that" instead of "what" there. I couldn't come up with a good reason or some sort of rule to help her know when to use which word. Could somebody help me with this?


    • Join Date: Apr 2008
    • Posts: 1,571
    #2

    Re: what vs that

    Quote Originally Posted by spinfinity View Post
    I have just begun doing some volunteer ESL tutoring.

    I was wondering if anyone has a resource with a good breakdown of when we use the word "what" versus the word "that."

    A student showed me the sentence "That you spent some time in a certain city is amazing!" She wanted to know why we use "that" instead of "what" there. I couldn't come up with a good reason or some sort of rule to help her know when to use which word. Could somebody help me with this?
    I can suggest the following test which will prove that 'what' is a notional word in such a sentence, and 'that' is a functional one.

    That you spent some time in a certain city is amazing.
    You spent some time in a certain city, and that's amazing.

    What you did in that city is amazing.
    (?) You did in that city, and that's amazing.

    We removed 'that', and it didn't affect the meaning of the sentence. We removed 'what', and the meaning was destroyed.


    • Join Date: Dec 2008
    • Posts: 3
    #3

    Re: what vs that

    Thanks for the quick response!

    Do you have any ideas for how I could explain to my student the difference? Besides taking "what" out of the sentence. What is a notional word?


    • Join Date: Apr 2008
    • Posts: 1,571
    #4

    Re: what vs that

    Quote Originally Posted by spinfinity View Post
    Thanks for the quick response!

    Do you have any ideas for how I could explain to my student the difference? Besides taking "what" out of the sentence. What is a notional word?
    A notional word can be used as a subject, object, attribute etc., a functional word can not.

    e.g. I know that he is wrong.
    'That' is a conjunction, it just introduces an object clause.

    e.g. I know who is wrong.
    'Who' is a conjunctive pronoun, besides introducing an object clause it functions as the subject in this clause.


    • Join Date: May 2008
    • Posts: 810
    #5

    Re: what vs that

    Quote Originally Posted by spinfinity View Post
    I have just begun doing some volunteer ESL tutoring.

    I was wondering if anyone has a resource with a good breakdown of when we use the word "what" versus the word "that."

    A student showed me the sentence "That you spent some time in a certain city is amazing!" She wanted to know why we use "that" instead of "what" there. I couldn't come up with a good reason or some sort of rule to help her know when to use which word. Could somebody help me with this?
    That you spent some time in a certain city

    is a subject complement. It is acting as a subject. This is evident because it can be replaced with "it".

    It is amazing

    What can act as a pronoun, used to denote "a/that thing", and I assume this is the function your student was thinking of. The subject (in your sentence) isn't referring to a "thing"; it is referring to time being spent somewhere, an abstract notion. If the sentence referred to something we could call "a thing" (perhaps a fundraiser) then you may say:

    What you did in the city was amazing



    It seems quite difficult to offer a concise explanation.


    • Join Date: Dec 2008
    • Posts: 3
    #6

    Re: what vs that

    It seems quite difficult to offer a concise explanation.
    Ah, my thoughts exactly. Thank you for the help though!

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