We recently did a test and we stumbled upon the following sentence:

  • This film is better than ... we saw yesterday.

With the answers:

a, which
b, -   
c, what
d, that

I choose "what" and the book also confirmed it as the correct one, but my teacher insisted it is wrong and it should be "which".

Could someone settle this argument for us? Preferably with some reasoning. Thank you in advance!

  • 4
    'Which' is certainly incorrect here, as a noun or pronoun is needed. 'This film is better than what we saw yesterday' sounds a little unpolished to some ears. 'This film is better than that which we saw yesterday' is correct but sounds starchy. Most Anglophones would say 'This film is better than the one we saw yesterday'. Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 9:04

3 Answers 3

  • 1.) This film is better than what we saw yesterday.

You are right, the choice "what" should be acceptable. The choice "which" seems to be ungrammatical.

LONG VERSION: Your example is in the form of a comparison construction that involves a fused relative noun phrase.

Your example is somewhat similar to:

  • 2.) This film is better than [yesterday's film].

Notice how in version #2 that the subject "This film" is being compared to the noun phrase "yesterday's film". This is similar to what is occurring in your original #1 version: two films are being compared to each other (or today's film is being compared to the set of films shown yesterday). That is, things are being compared to things.

In your original example #1, your corresponding noun phrase for "yesterday's film" (of #2) is the expression "what we saw yesterday". Your #1 version has the same interpretation as the non-fused relative versions:

  • 1.) This film is better than [what we saw yesterday].

  • 3.) This film is better than [that which we saw yesterday].

  • 4.) This film is better than [the film which we saw yesterday].

  • 5.) This film is better than [the one which we saw yesterday].

The non-fused relative versions #3, #4, and #5 expose the relative clause ("which we saw yesterday") and the noun or whatever that it modifies (either #3 "that" or #4 "film" or #5 "one").

The word "what" is common as the head for fused relative noun phrases.

But as for the word "which":

  • On the other hand, who, whom and which occur in the fused construction only under very limited conditions (usually with verbs like choose, want, like, as in I'll invite who I want).

The above is from the 2005 textbook by Huddleston and Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, page 192.

Also, there's this:

  • As noted above, who, which, and how hardly occur in fused relatives other than as alternants of the -ever forms in the free choice construction.

The above is from the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, page 1076.

Hopefully this will be enough for your teacher.

  • 1
    Just wow! Surely this'll be enough explanation for her. Also, thank you for the review on the original post, I did notice the mistakes and the poor layout but you beat me to it :) Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 19:34

You are correct.

In your case, "what" is being used in the eighth sense of Dictionary.com:

(used relatively to indicate that which): I will send what was promised.

A preposition-"which" construction is just like a normal "which" construction except that the noun phrase to which it refers (I used it here) is acting as the object of a preposition, rather than the subject:

Lithium is a metal which reacts easily.

or the object:

Lithium is a metal which chemists use.

Now consider the following sentence that uses "than which":

Lithium is a metal than which no other is lighter.

Here, the interpretation is "No other metal is lighter than lithium." In your case, "than which" is preceded by "better," which is not a noun phrase, so that simply makes no sense.

  • Though I didn't mark yours as accepted I would like to thank your quick respsonse :) Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 19:29

Get another teacher. The idea that "what" is wrong is not a grammatical judgement, but one based on misguided notions of what distinguishes good English from the more vulgar kind. The people who would avoid using "what" in that sentence are the same people who will avoid the accusative "you and me", even where it's correct, and say something like "It doesn't matter to him as it would to you or I". There's a whole boxful of these notions held by people who wouldn't dream of picking up a grammar book and reading it. Many of them work in television.

What the teacher probably meant was not that you should replace "what" with "which", but rather with "that which". But "that which" is just an ever-so-precious way of saying "what".

There was a sketch on the Morecambe and Wise Show in the 1970s that pretty well depended for its comic effect on this prejudice. Glenda Jackson, playing Cleopatra, is speaking lines supposedly written by the incompetent playwright Ernie Wise. She says something like, "Men are fools and cannot resist a beauty like what I've got". The fact that it got a laugh depended on the audience's belief that Ernie had written something that was not only bad grammar, but also vulgar and clumsy. In fact there's nothing wrong with it, except that "like mine" would have been more economical than "like what I've got". But grammatically it can't be criticised.

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