'What'-Clause - Definition and Examples

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A what clause is a type of noun clause (or a free relative clause) that begins with the word what. In a declarative sentence—one of the most common applications for these clauses—a what clause, which functions as a noun, may serve as the subject (usually followed by a form of the verb be), subject complement, or object of a sentence.

What Clause Examples

The following what clauses show how diverse this type of grammatical structure can be. Read these examples to familiarize yourself with the easily identifiable noun clause known as the what clause.

  • "What I want you to do is to go to the Turkish Consulate in Genoa, ask for the Consul and give him a message from me. Will you do that?" (Ambler 2002).
  • "Money was what I wanted. Other people's money," (Harrison 2003).
  • "What I wanted was impossible. It was a wish for the whole affair to have been imaginary," (Theroux 1989).
  • "What I wanted were new experiences. I wanted to go out into the world and test myself, to move from this to that, to explore as much as I could," (Auster 2003).
  • "What should not be forgotten is that diplomatic and military strategies must reinforce each other as part of a coherent policy," (Pascual 2008).
  • "Please allow Miss Manners gently to suggest that before one attempts to improve upon tradition, perhaps one should find out what that tradition is," (Martin and Martin 2010).
  • "What troubles me about becoming Asian American is not that it entails associating with a certain kind of person who, in some respects, is like me. What troubles me is associating with a certain kind of person whose similarity to me is defined on the primary basis of pigmentation, hair color, eye shape, and so forth," (Liu 1999).

Using What Clauses to Focus a Sentence

One particularly useful function of a what clause is to shift a reader or listener's attention to a specific part of a sentence, as Martin Hewings explains in the following excerpt from Advanced Grammar in Use. "We can ... use a what-clause followed by be to focus attention on certain information in a sentence (= another form of cleft sentence). This pattern is particularly common in conversation. The information we want to focus attention on is outside the what-clause. Compare:

  • We gave them some homemade cake, and
  • What we gave them was some homemade cake.

We often do this if we want to introduce a new topic; to give a reason, instruction, or explanation; or to correct something that has been said or done. In the following examples, the information in focus is in italics:

  • What I'd like you to work on is the revision exercise on the website.
  • Isa arrived two hours late: what had happened was that his bicycle chain had broken.
  • 'We've only got this small bookcase--will that do?' 'No, what I was looking for was something much bigger and stronger.'

We can often put the what-clause either at the beginning or the end of the sentence:

  • What upset me most was his rudeness, or
  • His rudeness was what upset me most," (Hewings 2013).

Sentence Emphasis and Rhythms

What clauses can also be used to add emphasis and rhythm. "We can use a clause beginning with what to give extra emphasis. For example, Rosie says:

  • What makes me really angry is the claim that foxhunting is a traditional sport.

Another way of saying this is:

  • The claim that foxhunting is a traditional sport makes me really angry.

Restructuring the sentence using what makes Rosie sound more emphatic," (Barry 2017).

Donna Gorrell explains that declarative sentences beginning with what clauses tend to have different rhythm when compared to declarative sentences that do not. "By changing ordinary declarations into some other form, you can affect rhythm and emphasis. ... [One kind of transformation that] alters sentence rhythm [is] beginning the sentence with a what clause:

  • What [Alfred Russel] Wallace was never to realize was that the mechanism driving all the geology was, in due course, going to be recognized as the then entirely unimaginable process of plate tectonics. (Simon Winchester, Krakatoa, 67)

... Winchester emphasizes never to realize and plate tectonics ..." (Gorrell 2004).

Subject-Verb Agreement With What Clauses

Because the "what" of what clauses can signify anything, subject-verb agreement is very important for clarifying whether a noun is singular or plural in these clauses. "Notional agreement seems to govern the number of the verb following a what clause. Consider these Standard examples: What is her name? What are their names? Here name and names govern whether what is to be singular or plural.

But when the what is a direct object, the what clause can agree with either a singular or a plural verb: What I need is names and addresses and What I need are names and addresses are both Standard, although the notional attraction from the plural predicate nominatives will tend to make the plural are the choice. Nearly every other use of the what clause requires a singular verb, as in What we need to know today is how much time is left [how many hours are left]," (Wilson 1993).

Pseudo-Cleft Sentences

Pseudo-cleft sentences are like cleft sentences except that they use what instead of it or that. Pseudo-cleft sentences, like clefts, emphasize part of a sentence that would not otherwise have its own clause by giving it its own clause. This is more clearly described in the following excerpt from Essentials of Mastering English: A Concise Grammar. "Consider ... sentences like the following:

(8) What worries me is the poor quality of your work.
(cf. The poor quality of your work worries me.)
(9) What she did was (to) tell me off in public.
(cf. She told me off in public.)

Such sentences are called pseudo-cleft sentences. A pseudo-cleft sentence consists of a subject realized by an independent relative what-clause followed by BE and a subject complement. A pseudo-cleft sentence topicalizes a whole clause in which one constituent--provisionally represented by what—is left to be specified (focalized) by the subject complement.

There are two main types of pseudo-cleft sentence: those in which what provisionally represents a participant of the situation expressed by the what-clause (as in (8)) and those in which what provisionally represents a type of situation (as in (9)). Thus, for example, in (8) the pseudo-cleft sentence is used to identify the DOER of the situation, as expressed by the original subject (the poor quality of your work), whereas in (9) it is used to identify the type of situation brought about by a DOER, as expressed by the original predication (the 'telling me off in public')," (Bache 2000).

Sources

  • Ambler, Eric. Journey Into Fear. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2002.
  • Auster, Paul. Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure. Picador, 2003.
  • Bache, Carl. Essentials of Mastering English: A Concise Grammar. Walter de Gruyter, 2000.
  • Barry, Marian. Success International English Skills for Cambridge IGCSE Workbook. 4th ed., Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Gorrell, Donna. Style and Difference. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
  • Harrison, Harry. A Stainless Steel Trio. Tor Books, 2003.
  • Hewings, Martin. Advanced Grammar in Use: A Reference and Practical Book for Advanced Learners of English. 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Liu, Eric. The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker. 1st ed., Vintage, 1999.
  • Martin, Judith, and Jacobina Martin. Miss Manners' Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  • Pascual, Carlos. "Iraq in 2009: How to Give Peace a Chance." Opportunity 08: Independent Ideas for America's Next President. Brookings Institution Press, 2008.
  • Theroux, Paul. My Secret History. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1989.
  • Wilson, Kenneth G. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. 1st ed., Columbia University Press, 1993.