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Is this question grammatically correct?

Published in 1936, the first issue of Life magazine had a Margaret Bourke-White photo of a what on its cover?

Can words like "the", "a", or a number be followed by the word "what"?

Can the word "what" in my question posted act as a noun itself?

  • Published in 1936, the first issue of Life magazine had a Margaret Bourke-White photo on its cover is the statement. Now what is your question? Is it what photo that was? What do you mean by of a what on its cover? – mahmud koya Apr 22 '17 at 10:44
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    @mahmudkoya It's a perfectly idiomatic and understandable question. – Araucaria Apr 22 '17 at 11:14
  • Is it required two times a ( a Margaret Bourke-White photo, photo of a what)? Can't the question be published...photo of what on its cover? – mahmud koya Apr 22 '17 at 11:20
  • You will only find questions like this in a quiz show or similar. It sounds very artificial. It implies that the questioner already knows the answer. – TonyK Apr 24 '17 at 19:47
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When used like this, what acts as a placeholder, analogous to a blank space if the question had been written out, e.g.

Published in 1936, the first issue of Life magazine had a Margaret Bourke-White photo of a _______ on its cover?

The respondent is expected to answer by filling in the blank. Since the article is required when the blank is filled in, it's also used with the placeholder.

But it would also be fine to write it without the article, or to completely invert the question, e.g.

What was the Margaret Bourke-White photo on the cover of the first issue of Life Magazine, published in 1936, a picture of?

These are mainly stylistic choices.

  • But, can the phrase "a what" be considered a noun phrase? – Anis Haidar Ali May 29 '17 at 11:46
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    Yes. what is acting as a noun or pronoun, so it's part of a noun phrase. – Barmar May 29 '17 at 21:27
  • Just like the title "Despicable Me", right? – Anis Haidar Ali May 30 '17 at 14:04
  • So the word "what" in the phrase "a what" is a head noun, right? – Anis Haidar Ali Jun 25 '17 at 13:08

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