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I have seen usage of "what" like this:

Depending on what data it receives, it will follow different instruction paths.

It appears to me that use of "what" above is redundant. Doesn't

Depending on the data it receives, it will follow different instruction paths.

convey the meaning?

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6  
It should be "on the data", not just "on data". –  Peter Shor Jul 28 '12 at 14:35
    
If it were redundant you could remove it from the sentence and it would retain the same meaning. But you haven't done that here. You substituted the word "the" for "what", which to my mind would only suggest that either word is possible, not that one is redundant. –  nohat Jul 30 '12 at 5:06
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2 Answers

They're completely different constructions, but -- as usual -- most of the identifying marks have been rubbed off, so that it looks like one word has simply been substituted for another. Not true.

In

  • Depending on data (that) it receives, ...

(that) it receives is a Relative clause modifying data, and the relative pronoun that (which is also OK here instead of that) is, as noted, optional, because the relative pronoun is not the subject of the relative clause. One could use the data just as easily, because data is simply a noun phrase object of the preposition on, and noun phrases can take articles.

On the other hand, in

  • Depending on what data it receives, ...

the object of the preposition on is an entire subordinate noun clause, instead of a noun phrase modified by a subordinate clause. In this case, it's an Embedded Question.

Embedded question clauses can use what; relative clauses can't use what. In addition, you can't add an article here; what already fills the determiner slot and what the data is ungrammatical (except, perhaps, in some bizarre scientific oath like what the hell?)

Grammar is not about word use; grammar is about Constructions. They determine everything.

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Great! I think I now understand why both the sentences are valid constructions. But I am not seeing how the meaning changes depending on whether or not the object is an Embedded Question :-). –  Kedar Mhaswade Jul 28 '12 at 22:39
    
It doesn't change. Like many, many, many other situations in English, whatever differences there may be between these constructions in some contexts neutralizes in this context. Or, as William Schwenck Gilbert put it, "This particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn't generally heard, and if it is it doesn't matter". –  John Lawler Jul 29 '12 at 0:08
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No, it's not redundant.

Both sentences are grammatical. But they have different constructions and meanings.

With the noun clause

Depending on what data it receives, it will follow different instruction paths.

the kind of data is emphasized. A different kind would lead to a different path.

This is also why I think this original construction is better.


On the other hand, with the adjective clause

Depending on data (that) it receives, it will follow different instruction paths.

is more general. The data will dictate the paths to take, not so much the type of data.

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Thank you! But if I were to say that something follows the kind of data, shouldn't I choose to be more direct -- Depending on the kind of data it receives ... –  Kedar Mhaswade Jul 28 '12 at 16:18
    
I don't agree that semantic distinction. All variations (including "Depending on data received, it follows different paths.") mean the same thing, which is predicated on the word depending. The specific grammatical structure doesn't affect that. –  FumbleFingers Jul 28 '12 at 17:39
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