Increasing despair in Yarragon

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This letter to the editor of the Australian newspaper The Age, from Brian Cole of Yarragon, a small town in Victoria, ran under the title "What the…":

WHILE I recognise the evolutionary nature of the English language, I listen with increasing despair to the inappropriate use of the word "what".

"What" has an interrogatory sense, that is, it is a word looking for an answer. I have learned to cope with sports commentators using expressions such as "they moved the ball better than what the other team did". But in the second paragraph of The Sunday Age's editorial: "and that their culture was the opposite of what Mr Costello suggested"? No interrogative anywhere to be seen.

There are many ways to improve this phrase. It would be acceptable to simply replace "what" with "that" but nicer usage to write "and that their culture was the opposite of that suggested by Mr Costello".


Mr. Cole is the victim of a mistaken generalization. He starts by complaining about a genuinely non-standard usage, in which "than what" introduces an ordinary comparative clause where "than" is the standard form:

Kim is taller than (*what) Leslie is.

He apparently concludes that the key problem here is the use of "what" in a clause that's not a question, and decides that this practice should be banned. But the other example that he complains about is an entirely different (and unproblematic) structure:

… and that their culture was the opposite of what Mr. Costello suggested.

Here "what Mr. Costello suggested" is a fused relative  (sometimes called a "headless relative clause" or a "nominal relative"). In this case it's serving as a noun phrase, the object of the preposition of.  The result is parallel in structure to

… the opposite of Mr. Costello's suggestion.

This construction is discussed starting on p. 1033 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. The authors suggest the term "fused relative" because "it is not possible to separately identify antecedent and relative clause", which we can think of as having been "fused", as in

It would mean abandoning that which we hold most dear. [antecedent + clause]
It would mean abandoning what we hold most dear. [fused relative]

Fused relatives are a perfectly standard construction in formal written English. And as for the "evolutionary nature" of English, the "evolution" in question took place quite a while ago, since (the precursors of) current English fused relatives were, I think, a feature of Indo-European. The equivalent construction is common in Latin proverbs, mottoes, and fixed expressions:

Qui transtulit sustinet.
Qui bene cantat, bis orat.
Quod erat demonstrandum.

Certainly this construction has been in use ever since English became English. We can start with Chaucer:

'Cosin,' quod she, 'if that I hadde a space,
As I have noon, and namely in this place,
Than wolde I telle a legende of my lyf,
What I have suffred sith I was a wyf
With myn housbonde
, al be he your cosyn.'

And go on to Shakespeare:

Good name in man and woman's deere my Lord;
Is the immediate Iewell of our soules:
Who steales my purse, steales trash, tis something, nothing,
Twas mine, tis his, and has bin slaue to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name,
Robs me of that, which not inriches him,
And makes me poore indeed.

In the classic literature of the 19th century, we can find a number of examples that are very similar to the case that set Mr. Cole off, e.g. this from George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876):

Doubtless her husband had meant to produce a great effect on her: by-and-by perhaps she would let him see an effect the very opposite of what he intended; but at present all that she could show was a defiant satisfaction in what had been presumed to be disagreeable.

Mr. Cole's letter is likely to have little influence. But the process that led him to peeve in public about a perfectly normal construction is worth documenting.  We see similar things again and again, and if the mistaken generalization somehow goes culturally viral, this sort of thing gives rise what we've called "zombie rules".

[Tip of the hat to Brendan Corney.]

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35 Comments »

  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    Am I correct that that "genuinely non-standard usage" is reasonably common in non-prestige versions of BrE (and perhaps AustE), but not in AmE? I'm thinking of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It's_The_Sun_Wot_Won_It, for example.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    or related to it, at least, there being no comparative element to "Wot Won It" but what/wot appearing where one would expect "that" in at least my dialect.

    [(myl) I don't know the history or the current sociolinguistic status of "than what" as an introducer of comparative clauses. It's certain Out There, as in

    So they took the server down 2 hours earlier than what they said they would.
    They sent me a size smaller than what they said they would.

    My impression is that this pattern has been around in some varieties of English for a long time, but I can't cite any evidence.]

  3. Ian Tindale said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 9:57 am

    What he said.

  4. AJD said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    I don't see how "Quod erat demonstrandum" is a fused relative?

    [(myl) I'm assuming that quod is the relative pronoun (from qui, quae, quod) and that the whole phrase is functioning as a noun phrase. Certainly there's no antecedent...

    If you don't like that one, try

    Eram quod es, eris quod sum

    or

    Quod principi placuit legis habet vigorem

    or etc.]

  5. Johan Anglemark said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    I don't remember this one from my cursory acquaintance with Early Modern or older variants of English, but considering that the construction "than what" is current in other Germanic languages (e.g. Swe "än vad"), mightn't it have been kosher also in written English once upon a time?

  6. mollymooly said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

    Compare and contrast (10 marks):
    1 earlier than I expected
    2 #earlier than what I expected
    3 #different than I expected
    4 ?different than what I expected
    5 *different from I expected
    6 different from what I expected

    Do the following differ in grammaticality and/or meaning (5 marks):
    - "He wishes it were other than it is"
    - "He wishes it were other than what it is"

  7. Ruth said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

    that last example has two!

    "but at present all that she could show was a defiant satisfaction in _what had_ been presumed to be disagreeable."

    And he says that you can replace 'what' with 'that' in the sentence he is picking on….

    "and that their culture was the opposite of that Mr Costello suggested"

    To me this sentence doesn't make sense. I would want to add a 'which' after the 'that' but if I actually said 'that which' in a sentence to someone I'd get laughed out the room!

  8. Robert Coren said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    My immediate reaction to Mr. Cole's claim was to think, "What nonsense!"

  9. bianca steele said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    It's interesting that the letter-writer chooses to focus, specifically, on the fact that the wording used is (supposedly) appropriate to a question but the context is not appropriate for a question-word, which seems similar to the issue raised often about a raised pitch at the end of a sentence making so many girls sound like they're always asking questions. I can only guess at why he thinks this is important, which is neither here nor there, but it seems to me–based on hearing a similar complaint from teachers and other authority figures–that it has to do with a putative refusal to take responsibility for what one is saying, like saying "I feel" instead of "I believe" or "I know."

  10. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

    How might Cole respond to something like this:

    "What's more, he refuses to bathe."

  11. Levi Montgomery said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

    There is a construction which I believe to be wrong, which only really bothers me when I find myself stumbling into it in speech. If you say it, I may not even notice it, but if I say it, it is A Very Bad Thing.

    You ask me if I have a crocodile tooth. I do, but I'm not sure where it is. "Not that I know where it is," I say. Surely this should be "…that I know where is?"

    Why do both versions sound so wrong that in writing I will simply recast the whole sentence? Is this related to the "fused relative" mentioned above?

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    The "earlier than what I expected" construction is common in and around Española, New Mexico, where I live. I don't remember hearing it elsewhere.

  13. LDavidH said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    @Levi Montgomery: I thought the "that" in your sentence is a conjunction, not a pronoun, short for "It's not the case that I know where it is" or similar. The same goes for "Not that it matters" – obviously not referring back to anything specific. In Swedish, the equivalent is "Not because it matters", implying "I'm not saying/doing this in the hope of achieving anything…"! I use the phrase quite happily in both English and Swedish, but it would be interesting to hear from a proper grammar bod if it is considered colloquial in writing.

  14. Ruben Quinones said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    What a ridiculous thing to say! Somehow Mr. Brian Cole from Yarragon never realized that English contains several words, such as "who" and "when", that are not always used in an interrogative sense. Romance languages do the same thing, like "Dime que me amas," or "Je desire savoir où est la justice pour moi." I wonder if he would amend "I Know What You Did Last Summer" to make it read "I Know the Things You Did Last Summer".

  15. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    I wonder if "than what" is influenced by ESL speakers. I've heard it a lot from Israelis (formal Hebrew מאשר másher and informal Hebrew ממה ש־ mimá she- both meaning "than what"), and it wouldn't surprise me if other languages have similar patterns (especially since a lot of Modern Hebrew grammar is influenced by European languages such as Yiddish).

    By the way, for what it's worth, I'd always taken "quod erat demonstrandum" to be an adverbial relative modifying the previous statement. "Therefore, all horses are white, which was to be demonstrated."

  16. Boris said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    1 earlier than I expected
    2 #earlier than what I expected

    Earlier than *when* I expected would be fine here.

    3 #different than I expected
    4 ?different than what I expected

    These are both fine (note: I don't normally use the different than construction, but I think it's borderline ok when I hear it), but differ in meaning. #4 can only be used if there is a "that" or a "what" in the antecedent ("What he did was different than what I expected" or "that which he did was different than what I expected (him to do)"). #3 is more general ("he was different than [*what] I expected (him to be)")

    5 *different from I expected
    6 different from what I expected

    #6 behaves the same as #4. #5 is always wrong

    Do the following differ in grammaticality and/or meaning (5 marks):
    - "He wishes it were other than it is"
    - "He wishes it were other than what it is"

    To me these are both wrong. For me "other than" is synonymous with "except for" and has no other meanings.

  17. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    @Levi Montgomery: The "it" there is what's called a "resumptive pronoun". If you Google for that, or for that plus "Language Log", you'll find a lot of information. It's not related to fused relative clauses specifically; if anything, I think it's even less common in fused relative clauses than in regular (non-fused) ones.

  18. Dan T. said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    How does the usage of "whatever", "whoever", "whatsoever", "whosoever" fit into this? They turn up sometimes in contexts similar to the above examples, especially in highly formal, legalistic, or archaic contexts.

    [(myl) Those complex wh-words are common as introducers of fused relatives, e.g. "I'm looking for whoever is in charge here".]

  19. AJD said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    Ran Ari-Gur's interpretation of "quod erat demonstrandum" is the one I believe to be correct. I don't think it functions as a noun phrase.

  20. Levi Montgomery said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

    LDavidH & Ran Ari-Gur,

    Thank you for your help, and I'll certainly look into resumptive pronouns. as for the "Language log" addition, that's essentially an automatic part of any language-related search I do! :)

  21. KevinM said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    There's also the dialect what/that substitution:
    "That's her; that's the thing what has stole his heart from me." JM Barrie, The Admirable Crichton.

  22. wren ng thornton said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    Is the sports announcer's utterance really non-standard? While I agree with your judgement on Kim and Leslie's heights, what makes the announcer's utterance fine for me is the combination with the verb. "… than what X did" or "… than what Y said", etc, are all perfectly fine for me. They can be analyzed as "what" filling the gap in "X did _" or "Y said _" plus raising of the wh-term, as is common in other patterns. Sounds the same as the second "entirely different (and unproblematic)" structure…

    The only difference I see is that the announcer seems to have switched ideas halfway through, since "what the other team did" isn't obviously something that could "move the ball" in the way "they" did, however better or more poorly. A switch from active to middle voice it seems.

  23. MJP said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

    It would be… nicer usage to write "and that their culture was the opposite of that suggested by Mr Costello".

    Mr Cole, can you really be advocating the PASSIVE VOICE in rewording a sentence to achieve "nicer usage"? I'm shocked! Can I recommend Strunk & White, p18?

  24. Tja said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

    The "genuinely non-standard usage" mentioned above would be warmly attributed by many britons to the immortal Morcambe and Wise (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morcombe_and_Wise); most likely referring to a play what Ernie wrote.

    Pound to a penny that's what The Sun was alluding to, too.

  25. Chandra said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 10:07 pm

    The only one in mollymooly's list that is unacceptable to me is #5.

    We need to coin a neologism that means "a word/phrase/usage so entirely unremarkable that it's astonishing to see anybody debating/peeving about it", because there have been several LL posts now where that has been my reaction, more or less.

  26. the other Mark P said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 10:31 pm

    Is the sports announcer's utterance really non-standard?

    In NZ it is fairly common. It is, however, low prestige. Careful speakers will avoid it, but no-one is surprised or confused by it.

    (J.W. Brewer wonders, first comment, whether it is standard as a variant of British English, and I tend to think it is.)

  27. Jangari said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

    I'm very amused to have opened Language Log to find this as the first item. The Age is my local paper (since 6 months ago) and I read Cole's letter with irritation. Compared with the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age's letters page much more frequently contains such peeves. I'm even thinking about letting Mr Cole know (via a letter to The Age) that his letter has been discussed herein.

    Wren, on the issue of the sport commentator's usage, it's non-standard as far as, I guess, middle-class standard Australian English, and it's something that makes me cringe. My fellow linguists in the office agree that it sounds 'bogan' to say things like:

    I can do it better than what you can

    The train arrived earlier than what the bus did

    Because, in my view, which I believe is concordant with the Cambridge Grammar, the antecedent of 'what' must be a noun phrase or some kind of nominal-functioning thing. In the above two examples, the antecedents are verb phrases (do something, arrive).

  28. Jangari said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 10:57 pm

    Compare my first example above with something like:

    What you said is better than what he did

    On the surface it looks parallel, but in fact it's fine since 'what' has a nominal antecedent ('what you said'). However the striking similarity between this and an ungrammatical sentence probably means many people miss the difference and, depending on how high up the social hierarchy they are, either use 'what' for all anaphor of this type (the bogans), or decry the use of 'what' for all anaphor of this type (such as Mr Cole).
    Just quietly, removing the 'what' in this example is terrible in comparison, whereas for the others, removing the 'what' makes them perfectly grammatical:

    What you said is better than what he did
    *What you said is better than he did
    ?I can do it better than what you can
    I can do it better than you can

  29. Helma said,

    March 1, 2011 @ 12:38 am

    Not sure about what we're getting at with adverbial relative, but Euclid's formulation, ὅπερ ἔδει δεῖξαι, 'exactly what one needed to show', the forebear of 'quod erat demonstrandum' does indeed refer back to the immediately preceding statement with the relative (lit. 'which was necessary to show'). Grammatically in Greek you'd have to say that ὅπερ is the direct object of δεῖξαι, not an adverbial. It's not an autonomous relative.

  30. Tom Saylor said,

    March 1, 2011 @ 4:40 am

    Have to agree with AJD and Helma about quod in quod est demonstrandum. In quod est demonstrandum demonstratum est, on the other hand, the quod is indeed a fused relative.

  31. Roger Lustig said,

    March 1, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    Still waiting for a production of Joe Orton's That which the butler saw.

  32. Mr Fnortner said,

    March 1, 2011 @ 10:57 am

    A typically southern US construction (probably not exclusively) is found in this sentence: He's cooking dinner for us, which he likes to do it. The addition of the pronoun it seems to change the relative pronoun which into a conjunction like since or because. Have others observed this, and is the a name or explanation for this phenomenon?

    [(myl) See here for discussion of a (perhaps more extreme) version.]

  33. MJP said,

    March 1, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

    @MrFnortner: quod in Latin is both the relative "which" and also a word for "because". Not much doubt that the second developed from the first (and there's evidence that this was happening in other IE languages long before Latin came into its own). Your example seems to show a variety of English developing the same way!

  34. jo said,

    March 2, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    @J.W. Brewer, @Tja
    The use of what as a relative pronoun (as in A play what Ernie wrote; It's the Sun wot won it…) in the 'ordinary' kind of relative clause (i.e. where it might be replaced by that, which, who…) is not really the same as what in fused relatives as described in the main post (i.e. where what might be replaced by that which, etc.). Certainly, the first kind of what is a common but non-standard feature of some varieties of English; the latter, as Mark shows, is uncontroversially standard. But the "genuinely non-standard" use that Mark is talking about is neither of these — it's the use of what in comparative clauses.

  35. PaulB said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    When I studied French, a few years ago now, "lequel" etc were described as "the 'that which' what".

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