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I came across this sentence fragment among the instructions for a writing lab report: "Simply describe what the data that you collected."

I feel like it should have an "are" at the end (minimally completing the sentence), or better, shouldn't have the "what" in the sentence.

How would you diagram that sentence if it read, "Simply describe what the data that you collected are."?

My best guess is the following:

  • (You) -- implicit subject
  • describe -- verb
  • what the data that you collected are -- relative clause
    • what -- relative pronoun of relative clause
    • data -- subject of relative clause
    • are -- verb of relative clause
    • that you collected -- embedded relative clause
      • that -- relative pronoun of embedded relative clause
      • you -- subject of embedded relative clause
      • collected -- verb of embedded relative clause
  • You're right, the sentence is ungrammatical. If you append are you end up with a fused relative clause what [they] are in which what plays the role of predicate complement. – StoneyB Apr 15 '15 at 18:16
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    It looks like the author (this sentence was never spoken) started to make an embedded question complement of describe (Describe what you collected) and then decided to add the data that you collected, making it clearer what was what, and then forgot to delete the original what. That happens all the time when editing, as everybody here probly recognizes. – John Lawler Apr 15 '15 at 18:49
  • @John Lawler: Totally. It's an easy mistake to make! I'm still curious how the sentence would be diagrammed if it was "Simply describe what the data that you collected are." – jvriesem Apr 16 '15 at 19:48
  • Well, it's an imperative, so it's missing a subject. And embedded question complements don't diagram well, I'm afraid. Sentence diagramming really only works for short sentences without subordinate clauses; the kind you see in first and second grade and never again after that, except in grammar class. – John Lawler Apr 16 '15 at 20:04
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With "are" appended, the "what" is a relative pronoun, assuming the construction is a headless relative clause, as it is sometimes called. The analogy is between

Describe [that [which the data are]]

and

Describe [ __ [what the data are]]

where the "__" marks the position of the missing head of the relative clause construction.

Another term for headless relative clause constructions is "free relatives".

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I would see it as a typo that was not corrected. I would delete this "what" and read "Simply describe the data that you collected".

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