I have a student who consistently uses "what" for "that" as in "The one what is blue." I need to come up with a rule(s) that would work for a 3rd grader, and am having difficulty finding anything. Lots of pages for "that" vs. "which" and when to use, or not use "that" But no simple way to help remember this particular piece of grammar. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.

FYI, this is not dialectical...no one in the family or around this area says it that way.

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    "The one what is blue." is just wrong. There are no circumstances in which you would say it, so you don't need a "rule" to help you remember. May 23, 2016 at 14:34
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    Sometimes kids need help to remember, e before i when it isn't after c, is mostly just wrong, but we still got a jaunty line to help drum it into us. I do wish I could come up with something, Seussian seems the way to go, 'said the Thing, what is Blue? yum tee tum detum too...
    – Spagirl
    May 23, 2016 at 14:52
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    A basic and insufficient (though it may be sufficient for a third-grader) explanation is: that answers what. As in "What is that?" So, "What is is blue?" "That is blue." Typically, what is used to ask a question. If you're making a statement, you typically will use that.
    – gfullam
    May 23, 2016 at 15:02
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    @Araucaria why is this wrong? "Cabbages red sunshine foo blink?" May 23, 2016 at 15:21

1 Answer 1


The word which is used in relative clauses:

  • That's the car which I bought yesterday.

Notice that the relative clause which I bought yesterday is giving us more information about the car in question. So we have a noun car, which is being postmodified by a relative clause. We say that the noun car is the ANTECEDENT for the relative clause.

The relative pronoun what is very different from which. We only use the pronoun what when there is no antecedent. Look at the following example:

  • That is what I bought yesterday.

Here there is no noun before the word what. So the word what means "the thing which". When we use it we don't name the thing involved. The problem with your student's sentence is that it is using an antecedent, the word one with the relative word what. In the type of standard English that you are promoting, the word what cannot occur with an antecedent.


Take any given sentence which this might occur in:

  • I like the ball what is blue.

If you ask yourself:

  • Which ball do you like?

... the answer should be:

  • The ball which is blue.

If they use the right relative pronoun, there is no antecedent 'X' to be able to ask which X. This means the sentence was grammatical in the kind of standard English you're aiming at. Consider the sentence:

  • I like what I have.

You cannot ask in response to this:

  • Which what do you like?

This shows the sentence is fine. You cannot correct it with which and so what is correct.

Having said all of this this, this is definitely only something that you would want to correct in writing. There is no point whatsoever trying to correct native speaker's speech. All the evidence shows that this is a complete waste of time and will not work. In addition, you run the risk of damaging you student's self-esteem and making them feel bad, and all for something that is not "fixable".

Although you may not have heard it before in your local area, this definitely is a varietal feature.


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