Taken from the Barron's SAT prep book:

What may be the world's largest rodent is the capybara, a water loving mammal found throughout much of South America.

According to the answers this is a grammatically correct sentence, though it just looks and sounds very wrong to me, and I'm pretty sure I've never seen anything resembling this structure before.

My question is what are the benefits (if there are any) of such a sentence to this one:

The world's largest rodent may be the capybara, a water loving mammal found throughout much of South America.

  • 1
    Better and grammatical are oblique if not orthogonal; which are you asking about? Nov 3, 2014 at 21:49
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    I think any summary of "benefits/drawbacks" here is Primarily Opinion-based. As it happens, with no other context to skew things, I personally prefer the prosody of the original citation, though in a specific context I might prefer an alternative such as OP's rephrasing. But both what I said there and OP's "it just looks and sounds very wrong to me" are opinions. There is no possible "right answer". Nov 3, 2014 at 22:02
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    I suspect that it’s actually a water-loving mammal. Whether its acts of love are also aquatic is a different matter.
    – tchrist
    Nov 3, 2014 at 22:50
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    The SAT sentence is better because it assumes that everyone in the world (or at least everyone reading the sentence) is wondering what the world's largest rodent is; thus its wording draws the reader into the question as if its answer is of vital importance. The second sentence is underwheleming; it states a probable fact in a humdrum manner.
    – pazzo
    Nov 3, 2014 at 23:30
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers Well, that's not necessarily opinion based. It's a grammatical information packaging question. The cause of the unusual phrasing is a cleft construction. The 'benefits' as it were are the reasons why speakers use this construction and the 'grammatical' constraints on doing so. (To do with speaker old versus speaker new information, scope and focus). A bit too difficult for me at this time of the night, but someone else may be able to give a good detailed answer, useful to other readers I feel. The relative clause aficionados will start sniffing round this soon enough! Nov 3, 2014 at 23:57

2 Answers 2


My question is what are the benefits (if there are any) of such a sentence

I can't think of any other than Tone.

The first is describing that which may be the largest rodent, and the second is simply telling you that the largest rodent may be the capybara.

As you pointed out, the sentences have the same meaning.

To me, the first conjures images of poetry and story-telling (... what may well be the greatest adventure of them all, was a night when..), while the second is less interesting but sounds more informative.


The rationale behind this structure is to provide Emphasis & Explanation.

If we break down the sentence by the comma into two parts.

Part 1

What maybe the largest/strongest/smallest/quickest....

This part provides an emphasis on the extent to which the object is described.

Part 2

..... , a very charming/loving/hateful...throughout someplace.

This part provides a detailed explanation to the previously mentioned object.

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