Sat. Apr 13th, 2024

What is one of those many useful words in the English language which have several functions. Of course, it is an interrogative pronoun. ‘What’ as a word can also introduce wh-questions. When its serves as a pronoun, it can be subject, object, or complement. Example of ‘what’ as a subject: “what happened?.  When what serves as an object: what are you doing? When what serves as complement, we have example such as: what is your name?. In essence, what asks about something and what refers to things. (Metcalfe and Astle 2006).

What can serve as determiner in a sentence. In essence, what as a determiner goes before a noun: what + noun. In this context, we can have constructions such as: ‘what time is it? ‘It’s ten past five’. ‘What color is her hair? ‘It’s black.’ ‘what  job does he do? ‘He is an electrician’.

What can also  be used to introduce wh- clauses (=subordinate clauses . in this context, what can serve as a pronoun to ask indirect questions e.g. We asked her what she wanted or I don’t know what you mean.

What can serve as a determiner introducing exclamations. Here, we can have a structure such as what + a/an+ (…) singular countable noun. e.g. What a lovely dress!/  what a beautiful day!. We can also have what + (…) plural or uncountable noun e.g. What strange neighbors you have! / What luck (=good  luck  or bad luck ) among other relevant examples (Leech 2006).

What does not refer to noun that comes before it. It acts as noun + relative pronoun  together, and means  ‘the thing(s) which’. For example, what she said made me angry / I hope you ‘re going to give me what I need. What this implies is that clauses beginning with what act as subjects or objects, and are called nominal relative clauses (Swan 2008).

What is only used as a nominal relative, meaning ‘the thing(s) which ‘. It cannot be used as an ordinary relative pronoun after a noun or pronoun e.g. We have not got everything that you ordered (Not…everything what…). Another relevant example here is the sentence: the only thing that keeps me awake is coffee (Not the why thing what…).

What can be used as a determiner with a noun in a nominal relative clauses e.g.  I will give you what help I can (=… any help that I can).

What is an especially complex word because it can be either  singular or plural and can refer both to words that have gone before and to words that come later in the sentence. In general, it stands for a group of two or more words such as ‘that which’, ‘those which’, ‘the thing or things’ etc. However, it must not be used as equivalent to the simple relative pronouns that, which, or who, as characteristics of highly informal or uneducated speech e.g. I was the only boy in our school who had asthma- William Golding . (Allen 2000).

A problem of singular or plural verb agreement arises when what is singular but looks forward  to a plural noun or pronoun later in the sentence e.g. What we need is/ are clear guidelines. Fowler had a useful rule that if the sentence begins in the singular(i.e. the initial what is singular), the continuation should also be singular; so the example just given would be expressed in the form ’what we need is clear guidelines’.

A different  situation arises when what is plural: I have few books, and what are there do not help me. In this sentence, what refers back to books, and so its plural status is clear. When what refers forward, the choice is less obvious: we seem to have abandoned what seem/seems to us to be the most valuable parts of our constitution. Fowler whose example this is ) had another useful rule in these cases: if what can be resolved into the –s that,  with –s standing for a plural noun that comes later in the sentence, the construction should be plural. In the example just given what… can be resolved into the parts of the constitution that… and the continuation should therefore be seem (plural), not seems. If the relative clause introduced by what comes at the head of the sentence,  the same rule can be followed if what can be resolved into ‘that which’: what (=that which) is required is faith and confidence, and willingness to work.

This principle is much less secure, however, since  what in the given (Fowler’s again) can be easily resolved as the things which (plural) what (= the things which) are required are faith and confidence, and willingness to work. Here there is clearly a choice, naturalness and rhythm which is often decisive; the important point is that the choice between singular and plural should be consistent throughout the sentence, and that a singular what should not be followed by a plural continuation  e.g What is required are faith and confidence, and willingness to work. This type of sentence is unacceptable

When a relative clause introduced by what is followed by further relative clauses joined by a conjunction such as and or but, the what should be repeated when it refers to something other than it’s first occurrence: There is a definite mis-match between what universities are producing and what industry is wanting-Daily Telegraph. In this sentence, the first what refers to one thing and the second what to another, and both are needed. But the temptation to use a further what (or worse, a relative which) should be resisted when this would have the same grammatical status (as subject or object in it’s clause) and reference, since the first what is adequate to sustain the sense: “Nobody is going to object to what is a popular measure and which will help those most in need”, This sentence should be rewritten as ” Nobody is going to object to what is a popular measure and will help those most in need” (or as “Nobody is going to object to what is a popular measure which will help those most in need, where a popular measure becomes the antecedent of the second which.

What is equally now generally accepted as that which. However,” what I do is my own business”, as a sentence sounds better than another sentence form that reads thus: ” That which I do is my own business”.

There is also ” what for?” meaning “why?” . Here, the body of the sentence, although omitted, is understood between the speaker and the addressed. It might be: “What did you hit him for? or “What did she go for?” These two questions should follow “I hit him” and “she went”.

Given the above background information, what can be used as interrogative pronoun, as determiner, as nominal relative pronoun, as question word and for introducing wh-clauses and exclamation in modern usage. Therefore, learning the use of what cannot be taken for granted in language studies.


Allen R. (2000) Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage: London, Oxford University Press Pp 607-609.

Leech G. (2006) An A-Z of English Grammer and Usage :  London, Edward Arnold Pp 628-630.

Metcalfe J.E and C. Anstle (2000) Correct Englsih:  Ghana, Gibrine Publishing Company Pp 59-60

Swan M. (2008) Practical English Usage: New York, Oxford University Press Pp 476-478.

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