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This is the sentence in question:

"Describe an experience that you went out with your friends and had a good time."

I found this in an ESL speaking practice booklet (compiled by non-native speakers), and the word "that" rubs me the wrong way. I would substitute "in which," "where" (although more informal), or "when."

Would you kindly let me know if you agree or disagree with my choices and how you would explain the choices to an ESL student?

EDIT: I am still looking for help explaining the choices. Also, please keep in mind that I'm not literally teaching this ELL English, but only helping him prepare for an international English proficiency exam.

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    I agree that the use of that isn't correct, but there are many different ways of rephrasing it. In addition to those you give, I prefer this: Describe an experience of going out with your friends and having a good time. Although, now that I think of it, describe the experience sounds better. For a particular event, I might instead use describe a time when you went out, dropping experience altogether – Jason Bassford Jul 3 at 3:41
  • Thank you for your suggestions, but I would like to keep the original sentence as intact as possible, so that the ELL can recognize the question, should the test examiner ask this very question. – Andrea Jul 3 at 3:48
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    What I'm saying, however, is that experience is a very poor word to be using in this construction. If the intent is to teach students how to use English, that word is a problem—perhaps more of a problem than just that which is explicitly ungrammatical only if experience remains, but which doesn't have the same subtle problems as experience. If all you want to do is explain why that shouldn't be used in some constructions, I would highly recommend finding a different sentence, one that doesn't mislead them in other ways. Being not as bad isn't as useful as being good . . . – Jason Bassford Jul 3 at 4:12
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    Jason Bassford - I hear your frustration and, believe me, these practice questions frustrate me, too, but if I change too much of the sentence, he will not recognize it when it is posed to him. So, as I was instructed before I started helping this ELL, I am not correcting every one of his mistakes, nor am I correcting all the mistakes in the booklet. So, I have chosen only to focus on the word "that" to teach grammar, as opposed to removing the word "experience," which may be the only "hook" that will help trigger his memory of having practiced it before the speaking exam. – Andrea Jul 3 at 4:28
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    I agree. A simple change to where or in which fixes the sentence with the minimum of fuss. – Smock Jul 3 at 9:58
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I agree with your feeling about the word "that" in this sentence. It is definitely not a sentence an English speaker would use. Also, the word "experience" can cause some difficulty, as some of the comments indicate.

I would recommend the following sentence instead:

Describe an occurrence (or occasion) in which you went out with your friends and had a good time.

There are a couple of points that are noteworthy for ESL students here.

  1. The word "experience" has several different meanings in English. One of them is something that happens to you that affects how you feel. In other languages, this may be translated to words that are equivalent to "occurrence" or "occasion", but in English these words aren't equivalent; "experience" is used to describe special occurrences that have a deeper effect. As an illustration:

    • If you go out to a bar with friends after work, it is an event or an occurrence, but generally it is not described as an experience.
    • However, if on your way out of the bar you find that your car has been hit by a drunk driver, and you are then busy with the insurance company for hours to fill out a report, convince them that it wasn't you, and get a replacement car, and then return home only in the next morning, then it is likely an experience - something that does not happen often, and that you will remember for a long time afterwards.
  2. The words "that", "where", "when", and "in which", are used in sentences like this to create a relative clause. In a relative clause we descibe more specific details about the topic of the main clause. The words we use depend on the detail we want to add; think about the kind of question that the relative clause could answer:

    • We can use "that", "who" or "which" in a relative clause to add identifying or classifying information. For example: "This is an event which I will remember for the rest of my life". (which kind of event is it?)

    • We can use "when" in a relative clause to add time-related information. For example: "Tell us about that time when your car was hit by a drunk driver". (When did that happen?)

    • We can use "where" in a relative clause to add location information. For example: "This is the bar where it all happened". (where did it happen?)

If the question that the sentence could answer starts with "in what" or "in which", then we should use "in which" to open the relative clause.

In the case of the sentence you are asking about, I would say that the information you add about the occasion is not just time or place - it is the identity of the occasion, so using "when" or "where" is not accurate. The question that can be asked here is "In which occasion did you go out with your friends and had a good time?" - and therefore, the relative clause should start with "in which".

  • Laugh, Thank you for the detailed explanation. Considering the intermediate level of the student, he would not be able to understand all of what you've outlined, so I was looking for something more accessible. Also, on top of the grammar that he does not have sufficient background for, changing the sentence completely could possibly backfire if the examiner asked him this particular question during the speaking portion of his exam...he may not recognize the question if I change it. I felt it best to only change "that," explain why on his level, and move on. – Andrea Jul 6 at 14:28

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