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While reading articles, I came across this sentence.

Mr. Rafsanjani, 82, was also regarded a protector of what was left of Iran’s marginalized reformist movement and others with more moderate views than the conservative hard-line clerics who hold sway in Iran’s security forces and judiciary.

I was wondering what the role of "what" is in this sentence. Does it serve as a relative clause modifying the "protector"?

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    Not quite. This is a 'fused relative' construction in which the antecedent and the relativised element are fused together in the single word "what", instead of being expressed separately as in simpler constructions. Thus "what was left of Iran's ..." is a noun phrase whose head is fused with the first element of the relative clause. The meaning is like that of the non-fused "...a protector of that which was left of Iran's ...". In a tree diagram, "what" would be assigned the category label 'pronoun' and the function label "head". (Btw, the noun phrase is complement of the preposition "of"). – BillJ Jan 11 '17 at 13:00
  • @BillJ Prezackly so .. – Araucaria Jan 11 '17 at 15:58
  • @BillJ Thank you so much. I think I am a little bit clear now. But it is so wired to consider "what was left of Iran's..." as a noun phrase, I mean, it is a full sentence with subject, object and verb(was). I was wondering can I regard "what" as a fused words by "someone who". What's more, this is a comparative construction. Does it the pronoun "what" compare with "conservative hard-line clerics"? You time will be appreciated, thank you so much! – HuoQ Jan 13 '17 at 16:30
  • No, the element beginning with "what" is not a full sentence. It does contain a relative clause, but relatives are subordinate clauses, not main ones. Any subjects, objects or verbs that it contains all belong in the subordinate relative clause. It may become clearer if you think of "what" as meaning "that which", where "that" is a pronoun (a subclass of noun), so we have the noun phrase that which was left of Iran’s marginalized reformist movement .... The element introduced by "than" is a comparative clause as complement of than which compares with others with more moderate views. – BillJ Jan 13 '17 at 17:16
  • @BillJ Thank you Bill. These days I am looking through some syntax knowledge. I think I am understand the structure of the sentence. Would you like to tell me whether my analysis correct or not. First of all, there are two complementary elements modifying protector, which is a relative clause what was ... movement and two pronoun by comparing. One is others modified by with more moderate views, the other is the conservative hard-line clerics _ modified by a relative sentence _who ... judiciary. Anyway, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. – HuoQ Jan 18 '17 at 15:01

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