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A student wrote to me

I'm sorry I was absent for class on Monday. What is the homework? I want to do that before the next class.

I prefer using it to that but am not sure what explanation I should give. Can you help?

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Hi. Is there a question mark missing after homework? That would clarify your question. –  Sky Red Jan 28 '11 at 18:51
    
Yes. Mea culpa! I miss-typed. There should be a question mark after homework. –  user4296 Jan 30 '11 at 23:11
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4 Answers 4

Neither that nor it is grammatical in that position. In fact, what is grammatical is no word at all:

I'm sorry I was absent for class on Monday. What is the homework I want to do before the next class?

Unless of course you meant this, in which case you do need it:

I'm sorry I was absent for class on Monday. What is the homework? I want to do it before the next class.

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+1 for the second alternative. –  kiamlaluno Jan 28 '11 at 18:54
    
Looking at your first answer, don't you mean "What is the homework I should do/have to do before the next class?" Not "want to do"? –  Sky Red Jan 28 '11 at 19:00
    
The quoted text is what the student wrote. I doubt the student asks What is the homework I want to do? –  kiamlaluno Jan 28 '11 at 20:09
    
Actually, that would work just as well in your second example. "What is the homework? I want to do that before the next class." –  Robusto Jan 28 '11 at 20:34
    
@Robusto: I don't find "that" to be wrong, but I do find "it" to be better. –  Kosmonaut Jan 28 '11 at 21:05
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Assuming it should read

I'm sorry I was absent for class on Monday. What is the homework? I want to do it before the next class.

as @nohat suggested, I think the reason I'd prefer "it" is, "that" is a demonstrative pronoun, and the antecedent (the homework) is very clear from the previous statement. There is no need to use "that" to emphasize what it is the speaker wants to do.

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Yes, you are correct. My original quote should have had a question mark after "homework". Sorry. –  user4296 Jan 30 '11 at 23:12
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My suggestion:

What homework should/must I do before the next class?

Regardless of your student's somewhat faulty grasp of English, you should rejoice that you have such a polite and conscientious student. Let's hope he or she goes far. :-)

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As others have commented, your intuition that "it" is better than "that" is correct. Here is how I would explain why:

The word "it" is a neutral pronoun, simply referring back to a previously mentioned concept (in this case, the homework). The word "that" is a demonstrative pronoun (carrying with it a sense of pointing something out - either literally or figuratively), and one that carries a sense of distance from the speaker (especially when compared with "this").

Thus, "that" is preferable when:

  • Something is literally being pointed out ("I want that!")
  • Reference is made (perhaps implicitly) to a specific thing among alternatives ("I want to do that before the next class (even if I don't do the reading and other preparation that I'm supposed to)"). Compare "I didn't want to do it", which refers simply to a choice between doing the action or not, to "I didn't want to do that", which implies that I did want to do something.
  • There is a desire to distance the object from the speaker ("Did you have to bring that in here?")

Since (presumably) none of the above applies in your example, the more neutral "it" fits better.

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