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Most people are taught to study lists of words by themselves: apple, surrender, enormous. But when you learn words by themselves, a few things happen:

- You learn what the words mean, but you don't learn how they're used. You don't learn what other words they fit together with.

- The words get saved in your brain one by one. So when it's time to make a sentence, you have to pull them out again one by one. That makes it slow.

- You don't get a real connection to the words. They're just boring words in a list, so it's easy to forget them.

I asked an English native speaker and he said that this phrase could be equally used both ways—with "what" or without it. Actually, without it, the sentence makes more grammatical sense to me. I have no problem reading it. But I can't quite understand it when there's "what". Could you please explain why it is there?

  • +1 I agree with you. I asked myself the same question when I read it. To me, "You don't learn other words (that) they fit together with" is okay, "You don't learn how they fit together with other words" is also okay, "You don't learn what other words they fit together with are" is fine, too. However, "You don't learn what other words they fit together with" just sounds odd to my ear. Sadly, neither of my ears is a native speaker's one. – Damkerng T. Oct 11 '14 at 2:28
  • @Damkerng It should be "You don't learn what [the other words they fit together with] are" or "You don't learn what other words they fit together with". You can't split the difference. – snailcar Oct 11 '14 at 8:52
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Hmm. Interesting question. I know the reason, but I'm having issues putting it to words. Let me know if this isn't clear, and I'll try and rephrase it.

Basically, there's a slight nuance in meaning. It isn't a big deal, and most people would understand you anyway, but it's still a difference.

We start with the sentence:

You don't learn what other words they fit together with.

And your proposal:

You don't learn other words they fit together with.

In the first case, you're talking about learning the relationship with words. In the second, you're talking about learning the words themselves. That relationship narrows down the idea a lot.

In other words, say we want to look at "enormous," since that was provided as an example. I could give you a list of words:

  • Big
  • Apple
  • Huge
  • Sparrow
  • Ginormous
  • Sofa

If I give you the definition of each of these words, you will have learnt them. I can then say that you've learnt synonyms to "enormous," but I can't say that you've learnt which the synonyms are.

This example may seem pretty silly here, because we're dealing with a pretty small list of words. But you can imagine that, especially in a language class where you'd learn hundreds of words, it might be necessary to have the relationship brought explicitly out.

In most cases, again, someone will draw the conclusion that you aren't speaking in technicalities like this. But that is the difference.

So as I said, this makes sense to me but I'm having trouble putting it to words. Feel free to ask for clarification if I haven't answered your question.

  • I think I gotcha ya. I guess, it could be rewritten like this: You don't learn what other words there are that they fit together with. Now it makes complete sense. – Michael Rybkin Oct 11 '14 at 2:57
  • @CookieMonster Awesome, I'm glad I could help make it a bit clearer. Good question! :) – Matthew Haugen Oct 11 '14 at 2:59
  • I kept thinking about this sentence for a while. I think having with at the end of the sentence makes it sound a little weird to my ear (though I'm rather sure that it would sound perfectly natural to native speakers). I tried some other sentences which seem to need what there, e.g. "I want to know what other jobs she is doing." And I can think of this "what other jobs" as a single word or unit. Deleting that what would make it sound like it's missing something (the or about might work). – Damkerng T. Oct 11 '14 at 3:02
  • @DamkerngT. Interesting, I don't consider "I want to know what other jobs she is doing" to be any different from the original sentence in question. I actually think what holds the same meaning in both situations, although your example is certainly a good example of a time when it would be weirder not to have "what" in there. – Matthew Haugen Oct 11 '14 at 3:10
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Personally I find both these sentences awkward. I would prefer:

You don't learn which other words they fit together with.

or

You don't learn the other words they fit together with.

In the first case I think you could be talking about any or all of the words. The second implies all of the words.

Whether you are learning the words themselves or their meaning to is not inferable.

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