In the sentence "What is it that makes us happy?", is 'what' the subject or the subject complement?
Does 'that' refer back to 'it' or to 'What'?

  • +1 Welcome to EL&U. Nice question. Let's hope you get some good answers! (this is a tough question) Mar 14, 2016 at 10:49
  • Although it's missing a question mark, I assume from the phrasing that this is a question, which would make "what" an interrogative. "that" in this context is being used in its meaning of "introducing a subordinate clause expressing a statement or hypothesis." and links the question "what is it" to the clarifying clause "makes us happy" (making 'us' the subject of the sentence). At least that's how I would interpret it. Mar 14, 2016 at 10:49
  • I assume - until further notice - that the what here is the X in the declarative counterpart "It is X that makes us happy", but if so, the exact status of X is still somewhat problematic. Mar 14, 2016 at 10:51
  • @Araucaria It helps when parsing that the "is it that" is largely superfluous I think: you could say "What makes us happy?" and it would have the same meaning (with the declarative counterpart then being "X makes us happy.") Mar 14, 2016 at 10:54
  • 2
    @JohnClifford The semantic won't help you to find the grammatical relations within the sentence, unfortunately. In It is obvious that she won't be able to make it the Subject is It. In That she won't be able to make it is obvious, the subject is the content clause That she won't be able to make it, but the two sentences mean the same thing. When we use different information packaging constructions, it often changes the internal structure of the sentence. Mar 14, 2016 at 10:58

1 Answer 1


The it in "What is it that makes us happy?" is called syntactic expletive which is also known as dummy pronoun (or dummy it):

It is a word that performs a syntactic role but contributes nothing to meaning.

It is also called cleft sentence and you can visit the link for further study. As the below quote indicates, the role of "it" is controversial and you need to read more sentences and grammar books to fully understand when it is referential and when it is not.

The role of the cleft pronoun (it in the case of English) is controversial, and some believe it to be referential, while others treat it as a dummy pronoun or empty element. The former analysis has come to be termed the "expletive" view, whereas the latter is referred to as the "extraposition" approach. Hedberg (2002) proposes a hybrid approach, combining ideas from both takes on the status of the cleft pronoun. She shows that it can have a range of scopes (from semantically void to full reference) depending on the context in which it is used.

If you change the sentence from an interrogative sentence to an declarative one, you will get:

It is what that makes us happy. (What is a subject complement here while it is the subject of the sentence.)

If you omit "It is" and "that", you will get:

What makes us happy.

If you change it back to an interrogative sentence, you will get:

What makes us happy? (It has the same meaning as "what is it that makes us happy?")

They syntactic function of "it is" and "that" is to emphasize the word that precedes "that". For example, "I saw him yesterday." could be changed to:

It is I that saw him yesterday.
It is him that I saw yesterday.
It is yesterday that I saw him.

Each sentence has a word in bold that is being emphasized by the construction.

Going back to your question, the subject is not what, but dummy it and what is a subject complement. The it is just a syntactic expletive (dummy it) that has no meaning in the sentence.


  • So if the function of the 'is it' + 'that' construction here is to emphasize the 'What', it would make more sense to me to designate the role of subject to 'What' instead of the dummy 'it. What determines which of them is which function, if it is not the relative degree of 'weight'? In more uncomplicated examples, the main rule says that a subject complement follows after a linking verb, so sequence determines function. By that rule, 'what' should be subject simply because it precedes the verb. Thank you for helping me get to the bottom of this :)
    – Anne F
    Mar 14, 2016 at 21:53

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