Actually I teach english, but sometimes I come across grammar things that I can't explain. This time the difference between "that" and "what" tripped me up. I understand that "that" is a relative pronoun and refers back to the preceding noun and connects the subject mentioned previously, but I ran into some confusion to explain the differences to another teacher! Amazing! Another teacher asked me and I couldn't explain so exactly. Funny. Also, I understand that "what" is used when there is uncertainty or doubt and that it usually means "the thing which" and "that which", but to explain the differences I could not do.

Here are a couple of examples: "Listen carefully to the words that I am using." and, "Listen carefully to what I am saying." Easily I can intuitively know when to use "that" and "what", but to explain the basic grammar rule which distinguishes them I could not do.

I ask for your help since I think that since I am an english teacher, I should be able to explain these things confidently and correctly. Why not, "Listen carefully to the words 'what' I am using." and, "Listen carefully to 'that' I am saying." Of course I know that they are wrong, but how can I distinguish them with certainty?

Thanks and waiting,

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EagleLionListen carefully to the words that I am using.
Here you have a noun to refer back to. words. the words that ....
EagleLionListen carefully to what I am saying.
Here you don't have a noun to refer back to. You only have a general idea of "things". If you had things in the sentence, you could do this one the same as the previous one. Listen to the things that I am saying. what substitutes for the things that.

Listen to [the words that / the things that / what] I am saying.


what can also substitute for the thing that, the stuff that, or any general noun plus that.
But you don't say what that. what already contains that in this grammatical pattern.

Did you see [the food that / the keys that / the stuff that / the thing that / the things that / what] Lucy put on the table?

Of all of those, what is the most vague and indefinite in meaning.

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Your reply was very helpful. Thank you. I appreciate it.
Hmm...would what refer more often than not to a question and that refers a lot of the time to noun? Or am I just talking through my hat? Really I don't know what that means. :-P
Anonymouswould what refer more often than not to a question ...?
No. Not in the context we are talking about in this thread. what can be used to form a question (What is on your desk?), and it also occurs in indirect questions (I have no idea what is on your desk), but those are not the usages we're talking about here.

We're talking about the what that means the thing which.

What you see is what you get. = The thing which you see is the thing which you get.

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I think the simplest answer would be that "what" is not a relative pronoun and thus, it does not refer to an antecedent. If we say listen to "what I say" this would be a noun phrase because a noun follows the preposition "to". I hope this helps. I am a second language instructor and I have to always explain those expression that we commonly use, but have not had to do so.
I've been searching the answer. And i'm korean.
korean teacher explanation about 'that' and 'what' is too hard to understand. so that i googled.
Now i can understand that i've been searching for a long time.
And i can understand the relative pronoun what you say.
Thanks man.
AnonymousNow i I can understand that what i've I've been searching for a long time.
As shown above.

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Thanks was really clear