What do you mean that it's wrong?

In the above sentence, is the that-clause an adverbial clause? Or a complement? What is the syntactic function of the string "(that) it's wrong"?

In other words, what are the grammatical relations in the sentence?

Here are more real examples from COCA (with and without the that):

OK, what do you mean that your children are trying to kill you?
What do you mean that it's believed that's where he got off?
What do you mean you found him?
What do you mean they run the show?

  • to me this looks like an erroneous version of what do you mean (by) ''it's wrong''? – Toothrot May 18 at 17:51

I wonder whether different examples can shed some light: 

How can you say [that] it's wrong?

There doesn't seem to be anything odd about the nominative subordinate clause "[that] it's wrong".  To my eye, it looks like an direct object.  It's the thing that can be said.

The part that seems odd is that "how can you" and "why would you" express the same sentiment in this context.  That doesn't hold true in other contexts.  Questions like "how can you eat so much?" and "why would you eat so much?" expect different answers, such as a high metabolism and a low self-esteem respectively. 

However, that's a question of modality which we can ignore for the moment. 


What do you mean that it's wrong?
Why do you say that it's wrong?

The subordinate clause still appears to be a direct object.  These two questions seem to express similar sentiments and expect much the same range of answers.  Both questions allow the original statement to be supported or explained, or for the implications of that statement to stand as an answer. 

The oddity here is that the "what" in that question acts like "how" and "why" usually behave.  "How" and "why" are adverbial interrogatives.  They can be parsed as adjuncts rather than arguments.  Ordinarily, "what" is a pronominal interrogative, which isn't a suitable adjunct on its own. 

We can explain this oddity if we assume an elision:

What do you mean [by saying] that it's wrong.

Here, "that it's wrong" is the direct object of the gerund "saying".  The entire prepositional phrase "by saying that it's wrong" is an adjunct to the verb "do mean", while "what" acts as its direct object. 

If we do not assume the elision, the next obvious possibility is that "to mean" allows "what" to act as an adjunct.  The questions "what do you mean that it's wrong?", "how do you mean that it's wrong" and "why do you mean that it's wrong" expect similar ranges of responses, even though we've progressed from the utterly unsurprising to the highly questionable. 

The elision seems easier to support. 

How do you mean that it's wrong? 
You mean that it's wrong, but how? 

Given a clear adjunct, we can separate the question that it asks from the statement that it modifies.  The same doesn't hold for "what": 

What do you mean that it's wrong? 
*You mean that it's wrong, but what? 

Once the verb "mean" has an obvious direct object, the word "what" no longer makes sense.  It doesn't act like an adjunct from other positions, even though we haven't changed the governing verb. 

What do you mean that it's wrong? 
You said that it's wrong, but what do you mean? 

This transformation practically begs for the restoration of at least one elided word.

  • I don't agree with the elided word part at all. But I like your analysis and your explanation very much. And I understand your analysis too. +1 from me – Araucaria Jun 14 '16 at 0:48
  1. The "that" makes it an indirect content clause/reported speech. The "that" is necessary to avoid the possible implication that "It's wrong" is exactly what was said.
  2. This is an expression that would appear in print only in dialog. It is essentially colloquial.
  3. "What do you mean" is an idiom (not a simple assembly of the meanings of its components). It is an expression of annoyed or angry challenge of something spoken by the auditor. If there is emotion being expressed, then one could also expect the expression to omit some terms that might make the grammar clearer, for example, "What do you mean (by saying/when you say) that it's wrong?" Those two possible omissions lead to different grammatical analyses.
  4. I agree with the statements of the prior answer.
  • "What do you mean" is just a normal interrogative clause that works like any other. There is no interrogative clause that is more an assembly of the meanings of its components than that one. Also, I'm afraid it isn't an idiom in any way. It has no figurative meaning. It may be a "collocation" but so is "What is your name?". The sentence "What do you mean" has nothing to do with idioms at all! – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 0:25
  • It's idiomatic enough that (without a PP) it does have to have a quotation (or, as here, an indirect quotation) as a complement: Whaddaya mean, "a couple drinks"? – John Lawler Jun 13 '16 at 13:10
  • Consider Silenus's assessment of "what do you mean" in his extended analysis above: "Further, 'mean' easily takes 'what', but the attitude verbs do not:" and "There is even a disanalogy with synonyms of 'mean' (for example 'intend', 'express', and 'convey'), none of which pattern with interrogatives in the same way as 'mean'." – DCDuring Jun 13 '16 at 13:51
  • DCDuring, the trouble is that just because 'mean' doesn't pattern with attitude verbs or even it's synonyms, it doesn't entail that 'mean' is idiomatic. – GoldenGremlin Jun 13 '16 at 20:42
  • It is contributing evidence. The expression as written by Araucaria begs for the idiomatic treatment in contrast to "What do you mean: 'it's wrong'?" or "What do you mean, saying it's wrong?" or even "What do you mean, that it's wrong?" In those cases the surface grammar is fairly clear. Araucaria's expression omits elements that make the grammar more conventional. I try to stay close to the surface grammar rather than theorize that there is a deep grammar. I wonder whether there are instances to be found that are not in fictional dialog or online dialog? – DCDuring Jun 14 '16 at 13:47

The OP has asked about the following interrogative, which seems perfectly grammatical to me (AmE, Upstate NY):

  1. What do you mean (that) it's wrong?

In particular, the question concerns the syntax of the phrase "that it's wrong."

I think the best way to approach this question is by setting aside the interrogative for a moment and considering its simple declarative variant:

  1. I mean that it's wrong.

In sentences like these, the that-phrases seem to be functioning as simple content clauses, which is a type of subordinate clause. In these types of clauses, 'that' acts as a complementizer and is entirely optional, evidenced by the following variant of (2):

  1. I mean it's wrong.

The analysis which appeals to content clauses is the standard analysis of sentences containing propositional attitude verbs like 'believes', 'thinks', 'says', etc. These verbs take content clauses as their complements.

  1. I believe (that) it's wrong.
  2. I think (that) it's wrong.
  3. I say (that) it's wrong.

Unfortunately, the analogy between 'means' and propositional attitude verbs breaks down when we consider the possibilities for interrogatives. The attitude verbs easily take 'why', but 'mean' does not:

  1. Why do you believe (that) it's wrong.
  2. Why do you think (that) it's wrong.
  3. Why do you say (that) it's wrong.
  4. ? Why do you mean (that) it's wrong.

Further, 'mean' easily takes 'what', but the attitude verbs do not:

  1. *What do you believe (that) it's wrong.
  2. *What do you think (that) it's wrong.
  3. *What do you say (that) it's wrong.
  4. What do you mean (that) it's wrong.

There is even a disanalogy with synonyms of 'mean' (for example 'intend', 'express', and 'convey'), none of which pattern with interrogatives in the same way as 'mean'.

Given this data, all I can say at the moment is that in the OP's construction, the that-phrase seems likely to be a content clause complement of 'mean'. What remains to be explained is why 'mean' doesn't pattern with interrogatives in the same way that the other propositional attitude verbs do. Maybe it has to do with an elided 'saying' as @Rathony suggests. (This last idea seems more likely than holding that 'mean' is simply a sui generis verb, unlike the other propositional attitude verbs.)

[I'll continue to think about this and (substantially) edit my answer if I come up with anything.]

  • I like this answer. Probably it is just colloquial usage. – user140086 Jun 12 '16 at 7:52
  • @Araucaria It answered the question "the that-phrase seems likely to be a content clause complement of 'mean'. " I think this question could provide an important clue. english.stackexchange.com/questions/332340/what-as-an-adverb. I think considering "what" as an adverb could be a valid answer. – user140086 Jun 13 '16 at 8:35
  • @Rathony If you read my comments you'll see that that was already established (in fact I mentioned it to you in the comments too). I missed the 'complement' there. Let me repose my comment ... – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 9:00
  • Hmmm. I enjoyed you examples. But I don't think your analysis will work. In What do you mean that it's wrong, the Complement of the verb mean which is equivalent to the Complements of the verbs believe, think and say is the word what. – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 9:04
  • 1
    @Araucaria and Rathony, to be perfectly clear, I added the phrase "complement of 'mean'" in response to Araucaria's original comment. I always intended it and thought it was implied by my comparisons with the other verbs, but I have now made it explicit. – GoldenGremlin Jun 13 '16 at 11:49

If I had to decide between a complement and an adjunct, I would say that "that it's wrong" in the OP is a complement of the verb "mean", not merely an adjunct.

But let's consider this:

A: It's wrong.

B: What do you mean that it's wrong?

A1: I mean that it's not a right thing to do.

A2: *I mean that it's not a right thing to do that it's wrong.

As shown in the ungrammaticallity of A2's answer, the verb "mean" cannot take the second that-clause as its complement. So, it's safe to say that the OP's that-clause can be a complement of the verb only in the interrogative construction.

Now, does that necessarily mean that it's not a complement but an adjunct? I wouldn't think so, as long as there are legitimate examples as shown in the OP.

So the issue is to figure out why only this particular interrogative construction licenses the that-clause as a complement. The answer, I think, lies in the fact that "What do you mean" as a whole translates into something like "Why do you say".

In this particular meaning, the verb "mean" can be said to have two complements, one being "What" and the other being "that it's wrong".

Another example similar to this that I can think of is:

A: What do you say (that) we go to the movies tonight?

B1: I say yes. Let's go to the movies tonight.

B2: *I say yes (that) we go to the movies tonight.

Here, B1's response works, but B2's doesn't.

And A's "What do you say" as a whole means "Let's" or "How about".

The verb "say" -- not in B's answer but only in A's question -- can be said to have two complements, one being "What" and the other "that we go to the movies".

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