In "What does it matter?", the "what" is considered as not a pronoun but an adverb in most dictionaries.

I'd like to see more example sentences where "what" is used as an adverb like this. But the only other sentence that I could find was "What do you care?"

Please show me as many other example sentences of this kind as possible.


As for the claim that dictionaries are not the right place to turn to for figuring out the "correct" classification of part of speech, I tend to agree with such a claim. That said, my previous efforts to consult some grammar books have provided me with no clear answer. So I had to turn to dictionaries and then had to post this question.

So let me put forth some new questions as follows in case the previous question is not good enough:

(1) Is the "what" really an adverb as classified in most dictionaries?

(2) If not, what's the proper part of speech of the word?

  • 1
    +1 [You're bound to come a cropper if you use dictionaries for grammar information, though! That's not what they're there for!] Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 10:11
  • 2
    @Araucaria "Come a cropper"? Look, I know English is weird and varied, but let's not get crazy, eh?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 11:08
  • 1
    I reversed my downvote and upvoted your question.
    – user140086
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 11:24
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    @DanBron British English! Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 11:29
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    I can't see how "what" could be an adverb. You may find it listed as one, but I suspect they'll be referring to its function rather than its part of speech (the Oxford in particular does that sometimes). "What" can be an adjective in the exclamatory What a mess we're in; an interrogative pronoun in What was that?; a relative determinative in What mistakes we made were very few; a fused relative pronoun in I spent what he gave me; and finally an interrogative determinative in What car was that?
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 11:56

3 Answers 3


What does it mean? 
What does it matter? 
What do you care? 

Whatever "what" is, it isn't identical across these three sentences. 

The sentence "what does it mean" is the simplest case.  This "what" is a direct object.  It is an interrogative pronoun.  We can separate the question per se from the rest of the clause: "It means something, but what?"  In this version, "something" is the direct object, and both "something" and "what" share their referent.  That referent is an implicit antecedent and the heart of the question.  Finding the referent is the same as answering the question. 

The remaining sentences do not demonstrate the same relationship.  Neither "It matters something, but what?" nor "You care something, but what?" make sense.  Neither of these verbs expect a direct object.  As that role isn't available, the "what" must serve in some other role. 

The meaning of the sentence "What do you care?" differs from such sentence as "What do you care about?" and "What do you care for?"  I don't expect that the elision of a preposition alone can explain the role of "what" in "What do you care?" 

However, a more extensive elision stands as a possible explanation.  We can paraphrase "What does it matter?" and "What do you care" as "In what way does it matter?" and "In what way do you care?", respectively. 

Adverbs in general can be paraphrased as prepositional phrases:

Why does it matter?  For what reason does it matter? 
How does it matter?  By what method does it matter? 
When does it matter?  At what time does it matter? 
Where does it matter?  In what place does it matter? 
? What does it matter?  In what way does it matter? 

Even the rhetorical use of this question makes sense from this perspective.  The assumed answer of the rhetorical "What does it matter?" is that it doesn't matter in any way.  The non-rhetorical use of this question is more informative:

Interrogative adverbs are as easy to separate from their clauses as interrogative pronouns:

It matters, but why? 
It matters, but how? 
It matters, but when? 
It matters, but where? 
*It matters, but what? 

Whatever this "what" is, it doesn't behave like an adverb any more than it behaves like a pronoun.  Those two categories succeed where this example fails.  It does behave like an adjective in the middle of an otherwise elided preposition phrase, but that seems too complicated an explanation for a sentence that appears so simple on first reading. 

Calling it an elision shares a common problem with calling it an idiomatic construction.  These explanations, even if true, cannot be proven.  We arrive at them by exhausting all other obvious possibilities, never knowing whether more sensible possibilities are simply not quite so obvious. 


(1) Is the "what" really an adverb as classified in most dictionaries?


(2) If not, what's the proper part of speech of the word?

Dang, I dunno.  Mebbe none.


As an Adverb is a word that generally answers the questions with 'how', 'when', 'where' and 'why', only these four WH words of degree used in asking questions are branded as interrogative adverbs and grammar books mostly group WHAT with 'who', 'whom', 'whose'& 'which' as interrogative pronoun — mere substitutions. That said we cannot deny 'what' of its adverbial usages.

< What happened to your old car?>

Again when 'what' assumes the meaning "in what way" ie. imbibing the sense of 'how' or 'why', it has its adverbial uses.

< What does it matter?(How does it matter?>

< What does she care?— meaning why it is important to her.>

When WHAT means "such':-

  • What a beautiful day!
  • What awful weather we've been having!

WHAT usually happens to be followed by 'with' meaning " in some manner of degree" and is used adverbially.< What with singing and dancing, the time passed by.>

There are certain obsolete and archaic usage where "what" is adverbial:

1.< What do I stand reckoning?(why)>

2.< What by water, what by land/tyl that they came nyghe vnto london.(to introduce coordinate concepts.>

— not to mention those examples in the post.


In your example: what does it matter, "what" modifies the verb "matter." That makes it an adverb. "Does" is the auxiliary verb for the simple present. Any simple present verb can be used. "What does it cost" is another example of "What" as an adverb. You can use the continuous (progressive) tense. "What is this costing you?" "What" modifies the verb "costing." You can also use the present perfect: "What have you done?." The modal auxiliary verbs can also be used. "What can you do for me?" What modifies "do."

That's my current understanding of this concept.

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