What–Clause (Phrase)

Shift emphasis to another sentence part

A comedian
 

 

Shifting emphasis to another part of the sentence

USUAL WORD ORDER

Usually, we focus on the person doing the action in this case, the comedian telling jokes.

EMPHASIS ACTION OTHER
SUBJ VERB COMPLEMENT

John

told

a funny joke. 

John

described

an amusing situation.

John

suggested

a hilarious explanation.

WHAT PHRASE

If we wish to place emphasis on another part of the sentence, we isolate that part and package up the rest of the information into a what-phrase (or sometimes a that-clause.)

PACKAGED iNFORMATION STATE EMPHASIS
SUBJ WHAT-PHRASE BE ADJ / MODIFIER

What he said

[That + which]

was

funny.  

 

What he described

[That + which]

was

amusing. 

What he suggested

[That + which]

was

hilarious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is a What Phrase?

That vs. What Construction

laugh
 

 

That clause vs. What noun phrase

THAT – CLAUSE

A that-clause can function as the subject of a sentence. That subordinates a clause, which can stand alone as a sentence.  That his joke was funny.

SUBJECT: THAT–CLAUSE VERB + COMP
DECLARATIVE STATMENT OPINION

That he imitated the president

(relative pronoun. + clause)

was funny. 

WHAT – NOUN PHRASE

A what-phrase is made up of a noun + relative clause (a fused relative¹) that + which = whatWhat cannot be removed from the noun phrase. *What he said (?)

SUBJECT: NOUN PHRASE VERB + COMP
MODIFIED NOUN OPINION

What he said
[a fused relative construction] (NP)

That which he said
[pronoun] [relative pronoun + clause]

was funny. 

 

¹ That / this (a pronoun) combines with which / that (a relative clause).

² That that he said… can be used but it sounds better as   That which he said…  (Both that and which are relative pronouns.)

fused (adj.) – joined; put together into one  [that + which = what]

 

 

 

 

That which becomes What

THAT + WHICH

A noun phrase (NP) commonly occurs as the subject of a clause. Sometimes, the NP may include a relative clause with that or which.  

NOUN + RELATIVE PRONOUN VERB + COMP
SITUATION OPINION

The joke that he said

  The line =That

 That    that     he said

 That    which he said

  The line =That

 What  he said

was funny. 

The situation that he described

That which he described

was amusing. 

The explanation he suggested

That which he suggested

was hilarious. 

WHAT

The noun phrase modified by a relative clause that which… is more commonly expressed as what  (The resulting construction is called a phrase rather than a clause.)

WHAT VERB + COMP
SITUATION OPINION

What he said

[That + which]

was funny.  

What he described

[That + which]

was amusing. 

What he suggested

[That + which]

was hilarious.

 

Don't confuse  that / this (a determiner / pronoun) with that (a relative clause pronoun).

hilarious (adj.) – very funny

Previously, this construction was analyzed as a clause. However, it is currently analyzed as a noun phrase.  See Grammar Notes.

(Huddleston 12 §6) (Swan 497)

 

 

 

 

 

 

What as a Place Holder

"Split Sentences"

 

 

 

Cleft Sentence with Displaced Noun Phrase

NOUN PHRASE

A noun phrase may take the subject position of a sentence. However, usually the heavier (longer) part of the sentence is placed at the end. This preference is also called "weighting".

NOUN PHRASE VERB NOUN PHRASE
SITUATION   OPINION

His delivery of the joke.

was 

particularly amusing.

The description of the political fiasco

was

was hilarious.

His interpretation of their actions

was

was debatable.

WHAT – PLACEHOLDER

What serves as a placeholder for the content of the noun phrase that has been moved to the end of the sentence. The effect is that more emphasis is placed on the initial content.

NOUN PHRASE VERB DISPLACED NP
OPINION   SITUATION

What was particularly amusing

was 

his delivery of the joke.

What was hilarious

was

was his description of the political fiasco.

What was debatable

was

was his implication of their actions.

 

delivery of a joke (expression) – the way in which a joke is told: timing, facial expression, word choice, etc.

initial (n.) – beginning

interpretation (n.) something implied or suggested as naturally to be inferred or understood

debatable (adj.) – questionable, dubious, arguable, disputable; are not certain because people have different opinions about them

Also see Cleft Sentences.

 

 

 

 

 

It as a Place Holder

"Split sentences"

 

 

 

Cleft Sentence with Displaced What–Noun Phrase

INITIAL

A what noun phrase may be placed at the beginning of a sentence to place emphasis on a particular situation. This is followed by a be verb+ complement (an adjective, noun or participle modifier) to indicate the speaker's opinion.

WHAT-CLAUSE VERB + COMPLEMENT
SITUATION OPINION

What he said
Something that he said

was funny.    (hysterical, hilarious, remarkable, silly, ridiculous unbelievable)

What he described to us
Something that he described

was a fiasco.  (noun)
( the truth, a lie, failure, success, mishap, irony, mistake, embarrassment)

What he implied
Something that he implied

was undeniable. 
(apparent, clear, obvious, evident, significant, understandable)

What I understood
Something that I understood

was amusing. 
(amusing, disgusting, disconcerting, enlightening, intriguing, revealing)

FINAL

More commonly the "heavier" part of the sentence is placed at the end of the sentence.  It serves as a place holder for the displaced (moved) clause. The resulting emphasis is on the speaker's opinion.

IT + COMPLEMENT WHAT-CLAUSE
OPINION SITUATION

It was funny   
  Subject place holder

what he said. 

It was a fiasco (noun)

~ what/ that he described .

It was undeniable

what he implied

It was amusing

what I understood. 

 

The complement many be an adjective, a noun, or a participle.  See That-clause Verbs and Complements

fiasco (n.) – a complete, shameful, and dishonorable failure

mishap (n.) – an unfortunate accident

embarrassment (n.) – state of having made a social error  embarrassed vs. ashamed

~that often sounds better when the complement is a noun

(Swan 130)

 

 

 

 

 

What-clause

Reversal

 

 

 

What-Noun Phrase Reversal

WHAT–NP ⇒ X

We use what to bring particular information to the front of the sentence, the "foreground".  What holds the place of the information which has been moved to the end of the sentence, the "background". 

SUBJECT

What appeals to me   is  (=) his energy
                       Move back.

What he wants    is  a chance.   

 

X ⇐ WHAT NP

When a what-noun phrase is followed by a (be) verb and a noun, the sentence can be flipped with no change in meaning. The only difference is the focus on what is placed initially (at the beginning.                         

OBJECT / COMPLEMENT

His energy   is  (=) what appeals to me
        Move forward

A chance   is  what he wants. 

 

(Huddleston1420) "pseudo-clefts") (Swan 130)

 

 

 

 

 

What – Noun Phrase

Agreement with Verb

 

 

 

What – Noun Phrase Agreement

SINGULAR

A what-noun phrase is singular in agreement with the verb in formal usage.

What I want is milk.

 

What milk I have is yours.  [money – is]

 

What I want is some milk and a cookie.

PLURAL

A what-noun phrase is plural (1) informally, if the noun or nouns following the verb is/are plural; (2) if the relative clause noun is plural; (3) if there are two or more what-noun phrases.

What I want are cookies.      informal

What I want are milk and cookies.  informal

What cookies I have are yours.  [coins – are]

What I want and what I need are two different things. (two coordinated clauses)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common Mistakes

Errors and Solutions

 

 

 

Error and Solution

ERROR

*What I like.   (a fragment–an incomplete sentence)

What he said __ that change is coming.  (missing verb)
 

What did he say is funny. 
[Aux Subj. Verb] (question word order)
 

SOLUTION

What I like is ice cream
Complete the sentence with a verb and complement (NP or Adj)

What he said was that change is coming.  
Complete the main verb.

What he said is funny.  
S-V word order

 

pop-questionPop-Q "That/ What"

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grammar Notes

Traditional and Linguistic Description

Advanced

 

 

TRADITIONAL DESCRIPTION LINGUISTIC DESCRIPTION

Noun clauses beginning with a question word  (Azar 12-2)

What she said surprised me.  "What she said" is the subject of the sentence.  A noun clause subject takes a singular verb.

 

Relatives (4): what  — What does not refer to a noun that comes before it. It acts as noun + relative pronoun together, and means 'the thing(s) which'. Clauses beginning with what can act as subjects objects, or complements after be.(Swan 497)

 

Cleft sentences (1): What I need is a holiday  (Swan 130)

We can emphasize particular words and expressions by putting everything into a kind of relative clause except the words we want to emphasize : this makes the stand out.  These structures are called 'cleft sentences' ('divided').  They are useful in writing (because we cannot use intonation for emphasis in written language) , but they are also common in speech."   — Swan

What I need is some help.  I need some help.

"A what-clause is normally considered to be singular; if it begins a cleft sentence it is followed by is/ was/ But a plural verb is sometimes possible before a plural noun in an informal style."(Swan 130.1)

The fused relative construction   (Huddleston 12 §6)

The fused relative is not analyzed as a clause. Instead, it is a NP [noun phrase] or PP [prepositional phrase].

  • We cannot abandon that which we hold dear. [antecedent + clause]
  • We cannot abandon what we hold dear. [fused relative]

a) Verbs agree with the fused relatives:

  • What advice he gives is valuable.
  • %What suggestions he gives is valuable.
  • What suggestions he gives are valuable.

 

b) Subject-auxiliary inversion

  • What he suggests is acceptable.
  • Is what he suggests is acceptable.

(S-V inversion is a feature of NPs but not a feature of clauses. Compare:  That he suggests a change is acceptable. *Is that he suggests a change unacceptable?) (12 §6.1b)

c) No extraposition

  • What he suggests is questionable.
  • *It is questionable what he suggests.

(Like ordinary NPs, fused relatives do not occur in the extraposition constructions.)

d) No fronting of prepositions

  • What he refers to is questionable.
  • *To what he refers is questionable.

(The preposition is not integrated into the construction)

e) Functional range of NPs  (Huddleston 12 §6.1e)

  • What he said was funny.  [subject]
  • They say what they want. [direct object]
  • They tell whoever they see the news. [indirect object]
  • They made him what he is.  [predicative comp]
  • They were anxious about what they did. [object of prep]

f) See (Huddleston 12 §6.)

Categories:  NP –noun phrase; N – noun; VP – verb phrase; V – verb; Detdeterminer; PP – prepositional phrase; P – preposition; AdvP – adverb phrase; Adv – adverb; AdjP– adjective phrase; Adj – adjective; Subord – Subordinator;  Coord – Coordinator; Interj – Interjection

Functions: Subject:  Subject,   Predicate: Predicator (V) Complement:  elements required by the verb: object, indirect object, predicative complement  Adjuncts: (optional modifiers) Adj,  Adv, clause

 

 

Resources

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 1

It's not what you say…

A couple at odds
 

 

Read  (without that or what)

It's not what you say but how you say it.

They say that a small amount of [we say] comes from words. A larger amount comes from the tone we use and the greatest amount comes from the body language we use.  If this is true, then we must be missing a lot of information from [we read on the Internet].

 

[Words can wound] is true. [We write] can also hide hurt or hostility. The following are angry messages sent by hurt "friends". 
[You said about being loyal] was a half-truth.
[You think you are loyal] is amusing.
[You described as "love"] was an illusion.
[You want a relationship] is a fairy tale.
[You believe about me] is untrue.
[You believe me] is important.

arrow (n.)  – a long stick-like weapon that is shot with a bow; this shape →

illusion (n.) – imaginary; false

wound (v.)  – cause hurt or injury

 

 

 

 

Decide whether to add what or that to the sentence.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the"Check"  or "Check 1-10 button.

 

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.
  (You are loyal to yourself.)

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 2

Stating Opinion

 

 

 

Correct or Incorrect?

  1. Select a response correct or incorrect.
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the"Check"  or "Check 11-15 button.

 

11.
What do I want is a better education.

     

12.
What makes good manners is a thoughtful person.

     

13.
Sometimes I don't know what do you believe.

     

14.
What most people seem to think about fashion.

     

15.
That what he said to me was really crazy. 

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 3

Keys to Being a Good Comedian

story telling
 

 

Read

A good comedian observes the audience carefully. A comedian's observations are important. It is important what she observes about the audience

Relating to shared experiences is essential. What a comedian says must be familar to the audience. It essential what he shares with the audience.

Trying a few test jokes helps a comedian get a feel for what kind of jokes makes the audience laugh. It is helpful to know what amuses the audience.

Surprising the audience is the key to telling a good joke. It's like a balloon: you inflate it and then pop it. It is interesting to hear what a comedian does to surprise the audience.

Selecting a particular joke from memory and a knowing when to use it is an art. It is inspiring what they do to make people laugh.

inflate (v.) – put air into; He inflated the ball.

try out (v.) – experiment with

 

 

 

 

Change the It-clause to a what-phrase.

  1. Edit the sentence(s) in the text box.
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the"Check"  or "Check 16-20 button.

 

16.
A good comedian observes the audience carefully.    A comedian's observations are important.

REWRITE:  It is important what the comedian observes about the audience.


17.
Relating to shared experiences is essential. What a comedian says must be familar to the audience.
REWRITE: It is essential what he shares with the audience.


18.
Trying a few test jokes helps a comedian get a feel for what kind of jokes makes the audience laugh.

REWRITE: It is helpful to know what amuses the audience.


19.
Surprising an audience is the key to telling a joke. It's like a balloon: you inflate it and then pop it.

REWRITE: It is interesting to hear what a comedian does to surprise the audience.


20.
Selecting a particular joke from memory and a knowing when to use it is an art.
REWRITE:
  It is inspiring what they do to make people laugh.


 

 

Also see Cleft Sentences