Relative Pronouns

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In this conversation Steve and Jill discuss relative pronouns.

Steve: Hi Jill.

Jill: Hi Steve. How are you?

Steve: I’m fine.

You know, I thought today that we would talk a little bit about the language and how it’s used.

I want to talk in particular about something that is called in grammar terms the ‘relative pronoun’ which sounds very complicated and sophisticated but basically what we’re talking about is in every language if you talk about a particular house or a particular person you’re going to say something like the house which is on the hill.


Or, Jill is the girl in the red dress.

Do you have a red dress on?

Jill: I sure do.

Steve: Alright so what about Steve? Which guy is Steve?

Jill: Steve is the guy with the glasses.

Steve: Right.

Now, in some languages they do it differently.

They would say, the with the glasses guy, the wearing the red dress girl.

We don’t do it that way in English, do we?

Jill: Not at all, no. And most people have problems with pronouns, relative pronouns.

Steve: And, I wonder what, you know I, we often say the best thing is to notice the language and notice the structures but one thing we can say is that first of all, which are these pronouns? Name some of them.

Jill: ‘Which’, ‘that’, ‘with’, no.

Steve: No. ‘Who’.

Jill: ‘Who’.

Steve: Alright. So there for example, right away, off the bat, as we say, right off the bat, the meal that I ate last night, the meal which I ate last night, is there any difference in your mind?

Jill: Well I was taught in high school by a, one of my English teachers who was a stickler for grammar rules that inanimate things like houses, you use ‘that’ and you use ‘which’ and ‘who’ with people.

So we were taught that you wouldn’t say the house ‘which’ is over there, you would say the house ‘that’ is over there.

I mean, people do say with which all the time.

I don’t know if you know, it’s a big deal but that is what I was actually taught.

Steve: But you know, I think the point which you make, the point you have just made, the point which you made, they’re both acceptable.

But, what I find is that I’m curious now.

I want to know.

I want to know which is correct and so I would go into LingQ or the Linguist and I would save ‘which’ just to see what kind of examples turn up.

One of the things that we try to train people is to try to discover the language whether it be English or Japanese or Spanish, try to discover the language for yourself.

You will remember it better in my opinion.

One of the things that people have to be careful of whether we’re talking about ‘which’ or ‘that’ is some people get very sloppy with ‘which’, even native speakers.

They’ll say things like you know, I don’t like going to the interior because it gets so hot, which it was really hot last weekend.

You know, I mean I’m exaggerating but often they’ll use the word which to connect.

Jill: As a run on sentence. Instead of just starting a new sentence they throw it in there.

Steve: Not only is it a run on sentence but because the word ‘which’ is supposed to stand for something else, it’s a pronoun it has to be clear just what specific item, noun, person, thing does this ‘which’ represent.

You can’t just have it, you know, I don’t like swimming in the ocean.

You could say which is why I don’t you know, have a boat so that there the ‘which’ is clear because ‘that is why’ can sometimes be covered by the word ‘which’.

So, here again, we don’t like to have a lot of grammar rules.

We would, we prefer that people explore the language themselves.

Part of the problem is that there are so many exceptions when you try to describe it with rules.

I don’t know.

What else could we say to help people?

Jill: Well, one thing I’ve noticed actually is a lot of people, I’ve noticed this a lot among German speakers and probably other groups but for sure among German speakers, they will often say ‘what’ instead of ‘that’.

The house ‘what’ I went to, you know the place ‘what’ I went to yesterday which is totally incorrect.

It’s the place ‘that’ I went to.

Steve: You know it’s interesting because in German they would use das which is that.

The people who should have a problem would be like the Russians because there the word ‘kotoryy’, which means ‘what’, is used as ‘which’.

So, I mean these are all similar words and it’s really just that in one language we use one and in another we use another word.

But you’re quite right.

I sometimes, the house ‘what’ I bought is not correct.

Jill: And actually another thing I was going to mention is I was thinking about it after we spoke and I think I was confused and I think it was my English teacher who was saying that ‘who’ and ‘that’ are used interchangeably and he was saying ‘who’ is specific to a person.

You can’t use ‘who’ and say the house who was on the hill.

You have to say the house ‘that’ is on the hill.

And, we often do say something like the person ‘that’ I admire most but in reality it’s supposed to be the person ‘who’ I admire most.

That’s what I was taught so not ‘which’ but ‘who’.

Steve: Well that’s the problem with rules.

You’re better off to look at practice and I think if you said that person that I admire the most, I don’t think that’s wrong.

I, I think you’ll hear that all the time.

Jill: Yeah, I’m not saying you won’t hear it but I’m saying in some text book somewhere it says ‘who’ should be used with a person and ‘that’ should be used with a thing.

So, but we say it all the time.

They have speakers say it all the time so I wouldn’t, and that’s the danger of reading a text book about grammar rules, is you know, it may tell you something and then you hear native speakers saying it the other way and you can’t understand why they’re saying something that this book told you was wrong.

Steve: Right.

I think that’s where again, we get back to this idea of we encourage people to do a lot of listening, to listen to people who’s voices they like, listen to people who speak the way they would like to speak and just gradually start to imitate them.

I was just thinking it’s kind of funny, but when sometimes if we imitate an accent like you were saying German people might say the house ‘what’ is on the hill, or we might say like, imitating a French person, you know, using for example my car, she is not big or something because of course, in those languages they have masculine and feminine.

And, sometimes ‘who’ gets used where it certainly, for an inanimate object, for a thing you cannot use ‘who’.

That’s 100%.

No exceptions.

But going the other way, the fact that, the fact that I am happy, of course that’s not a relative pronoun.

It’s so easy to get confused.

It’s so easy to get confused.

But the house that I bought, the house which I bought, the person, the person that I admire the most, I think that sounds better than the person which I admire the most, of the person whom I admire the most.

You know we can sure get ourselves confused.

Can you imagine non native speakers?

Of course they get confused.

Yeah, I think we’ve covered that.

I think our best advice to people is start noticing it because it is something that people have difficulty with.

People who come from languages like you know, some of the Asian languages where the model is more that of you know, the on top of the hill house rather than the house which is on top of the hill, those people will have trouble with a structure that’s different from their own language.

Then you have people like say Russians or Germans who would say the house what is on top of the hill.

So really, you just have to be sensitive to it, save ‘which’ or save phrases, observe it, listen to it, get used to it and you will naturally start to say it properly I believe.

Jill: I agree.

Steve: Thank you. Alright, so this is again, it’s, and it’s Steve and…

Jill: Jill.

Steve: Bye for now.

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