what

what
1. general.
As a relative pronoun, 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) that, anything (or everything) that, etc.:

• What you need…is some outside interest —Ruth Rendell, 1974

• They contribute what they can, if they are lucky enough to find work —Contemporary Review, 2000.

It must not be used as equivalent to the simple relative pronouns that, which, or who, a use characteristic of highly informal or uneducated speech:

• I was the only boy in our school what had asthma —William Golding, 1954.

2. singular what.
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: What we need is/are clear guidelines. Fowler had a useful rule that if the sentence begins in the singular (i.e. if 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. In current use this rule is often respected, as the following examples show:

• What really worries me is the numbers —Nina Bawden, 1987

• What bothered him was drivers who switched lanes without signalling —New Yorker, 1989.

In these cases, it is arguable that a noun phrase such as the circumstance of or the fact of should be understood after the main verb; it is not the numbers or the drivers as such that cause the worry in the first example or the bother in the second, but the fact of what they represented or were doing. There are, however, counter examples to be found:

• What concerns me are the number of construction projects that are delayed —York Press, 2004 [OEC].

3. plural what.
A different situation arises when what is plural: I have few books, and what there are 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 our 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 example given (Fowler's again) can as easily be 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, and naturalness and rhythm will often be 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: ☒ What is required are faith and confidence, and willingness to work.
4. the type whatand which
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 at its first occurrence:

• There is a definite mis-match between what universities are producing and what industry is wanting —Daily Telegraph, 1971.

In this example, 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 its 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 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 which).
5. what after as and than.
What should not be used after the conjunctions as and than in comparative constructions of the following type:

• ☒ People who have difficulty in ‘hearing’ intonation patterns are generally only having difficulty in relating what they hear (which is the same as what everyone else hears) to this ‘pseudo-spatial’ representation —P. Roach, 1983

(read: the same as everyone else hears)

• ☒ She sometimes comes out with more than what she went in with —R. Hamilton, 1993

(read: more than she went in with).
But what should be used when it is essential to the structure of the sentence:

• It was always easier to say what such a school should not be, rather than what it should be —H. Judge, 1984.


Modern English usage. 2014.

Synonyms:

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