In the joke

Why are frogs so happy?

They eat whatever bugs them.

would it be grammatically correct to change the second sentence to "They eat whatever that bugs them"? If so, what parts of speech are "whatever" and "that" in this case?

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  • 3
    No, it wouldn't be grammatically correct (or at least, "idiomatically standard") to make that change. They eat whatever bugs them is fine as it stands. If you wanted to include that, you could go for They eat that which bugs them, but that's a somewhat dated/literary usage. – FumbleFingers Oct 6 '15 at 20:26
  • Or "...whatever it is that bugs them." – JHCL Oct 6 '15 at 20:28
  • Welcome to English Language and Usage Stack Exchange! Just so you know, the general policy is that when you ask a question about specific words, you're supposed to mention any relevant information from the dictionary entries on these words. Part-of-speech information is found in most dictionaries. – sumelic Oct 6 '15 at 21:24

"They eat whatever that bugs them" is not correct.

Here, whatever is a pronoun. It is included among the relative pronouns by at least some definitions of that term: relative-pronoun, relative-pronoun, although it seems to often be left out of lists of more commonly-discussed relative pronouns such as which and who (unlike these two relative pronouns, whatever is not standardly used after other noun phrases).

In any case, no matter what we call it, it is just followed directly by the relative clause; using another relativizing word is unnecessary and ungrammatical.

The word that is also traditionally classified as a relative pronoun, although I think I've read some analyses where it is not classified as a pronoun, but just a "relativizer". From Wikipedia:

The word that [...] is used as a relative pronoun; however, according to some linguists it ought to be analyzed instead as a subordinating conjunction or relativizer. This is consistent with that used as a conjunction in (I said that I was tired), or implied in (I said I was tired).

According to Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum that is not a relative pronoun but a subordinator, and its analysis requires a relativized symbol R as in (The film that I needed [R] is not obtainable). Here R is the covert direct object of the verb "needed" and has "the film" as an antecedent.[15] A similar analysis is required when that is omitted and implied, as in (The film I needed is not obtainable).

Differences between that and other relative pronouns include limiting that to restrictive relative clauses and not preceding it with a preposition. Similarities between the relative pronoun that and the ordinary conjunction that include using (almost invariably) the weak pronunciation /ðət/ and frequently omitting it as implied.


No, it doesn't work. You can say:

They eat what bugs them.

You cannot add another pronoun 'that' because 'what' is already serving that purpose.

They eat what that bugs them. (nonsense)

In this context, 'whatever' is just a more emphatic version of 'what'. The same rules apply.

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