The fused relative word 'what' generally means "the thing(s) that/which".

But there are some instances where this 'what' seems to refer to "person(s)" as in these examples:

(1) From a Bustle article titled "Julián Castro On Exploring A 2020 Run & The Possibility Of Becoming Our First Latino President":

Bustle's Alicia Menendez spoke with Castro about his decision to explore running, the stakes of the election, and the possibility of becoming America’s first Latino president.

Alicia Menendez: You are the first of what many anticipate will be about a dozen Democratic hopefuls to officially announce an exploratory committee. Why do it now?

(2) From a CNBC article titled "America’s foreign policy is seen threatened by James Mattis’ exit, feeling of chaos in Washington":

Mattis was seen as the lone remaining grownup in Trump’s Cabinet, willing to push back against a commander-in-chief who disdains the government’s foreign policy apparatus, and has little use for traditional diplomacy.

“Secretary Mattis represents the last of what we might call the mainstream foreign policy thinkers in the Trump administration,” said Jim Lindsay, who recently co-authored the book The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership. “His departure is going to shape the balance of advice the president gets. And I think it is also going to change how American foreign policy is viewed overseas.”

In the above examples, does the 'what' mean "the person(s) that/who" instead of "the thing(s) that/which"?


It seems no one objects to interpreting the 'what' in the above examples as "the person(s) that/who".

But it doesn't seem that it can always mean "the person(s) that/who".

If that's the case, when can it mean "the person(s) that/who" and when can it not?

4 Answers 4


Those are long sentences. Let's simplify things so that the example isn't so long as the ones you've given:

The Cretaceous is the last period of what we call the Cenozoic era.

That was the initial problem of what became an ordeal.

Is "what" referring to what comes before or after it?

I would claim that the pronoun "what" refers to the entire phrase beginning from "what", including itself (why it can be called fused) onward. To quote the relative pronoun article of Wikipedia:

For example, in "I like what you did", what is a relative pronoun, but without an antecedent. The clause what you did itself plays the role of a nominal (the object of like) in the main clause. A relative pronoun used this way is sometimes called a fused relative pronoun, since the antecedent appears fused into the pronoun (what in this example can be regarded as a fusion of that which).
Relative pronoun, antecedents

Note the specifically that first it says it has no antecedent, and then says that the antecedent "appears fused into the pronoun". In its explanation of "free relative clause" in the "Relative clause" article it says the following:

A free relative clause, on the other hand, does not have an explicit antecedent external to itself. Instead, the relative clause itself takes the place of an argument in the matrix clause. For example, in the English sentence "I like what I see", the clause what I see is a free relative clause, because it has no antecedent, but itself serves as the object of the verb like in the main clause. (An alternative analysis is that the free relative clause has zero as its antecedent.) Relative clause, bound and free

So from Wikipedia we have the claims that in such constructions the relative pronoun "what" either:

Has no antecedent.
Has zero as its antecedent.
The "antecedent appears fused into the pronoun".

So in both of your examples the "what" pronoun refers to everything from itself onward (in the case of the second example where the quotation ends).

Can the relative word 'what' mean “the person(s) that”?

I'm not exactly sure, because if we take the example below, which is in the same construction as those above:

Leonardo da Vinci was a prime example of what we call a polymath.

Because the relative pronoun is supposedly fused, and that "what" refers rather to the whole phrase "what we call a polymath", and not just "polymath", which is a person, I'm unsure. If "what we call a polymath" is a person, then in that case I think the answer is yes.

Another example:

Claude Monet was an enormous influence on what became the great impressionist painters.

There's no doubt that "impressionist painters" are people here, though strictly speaking your question is if "what" in this sense can refer to people, and strictly speaking the "what" is referring to the whole phrase from "what" onwards. I don't know if this qualifies as a yes to your answer.

Also, there is some objection to using "that" instead of "who" as a relative pronoun in sentences like:

All the parents that were present waited to see the teachers.

Although there are recommendations that strictly say to use "who" for people and "that" for things, there is a variation of opinion. And to the extent that the relative pronoun "what" means "that which", as is listed in many dictionaries, then there may be an objection on this ground.

  • 1
    Your second example rings false in my ear: “... influence on what became ... painters”? I’d buy “movement” as the object there, but not a reference to people.
    – Robusto
    Dec 25, 2018 at 4:42
  • @Robusto Yes, I did notice that, "movement" was exactly the word I was tempted to use, but "movement" aren't as explicitly persons as painters are, so I jammed it in there. As a result it doesn't sound very good, or "rings false" as you say. My examples are probably all bad. I was just trying a way to make my point with example sentences. Edit "On what would become"... any better? Probably not.
    – Zebrafish
    Dec 25, 2018 at 4:46
  • No, only that one is ungrammatical; the others are OK. What works with movement, as noted. I should think that what we call NP is a fixed phrase, so it may extend the envelope of this construction. And free relatives/embedded questions pose so many problems for the syntactician that nobody should feel bad about not solving all of them. They're a mess, no matter what tack you take. Dec 28, 2018 at 16:14

Then word “what” refers to an assumed outside perception of the issue being discussed.

Using Julian Castro example, Alicia Menendez: You are the first of what many anticipate will be about a dozen Democratic hopefuls to officially announce an exploratory committee. Why do it now?

Omit the “what” part of the sentence to see the assumed perception.

This is the assumed outside perception: “You are the first Democratic hopeful to officially announce an exploratory committee.”

To answer your question, it would be the person. Julian Castro is the assumed Democratic hopeful.

Let’s look at Mattis.

Omit the what part of the sentence.

Secretary Mattis represents the mainstream foreign policy thinkers in the Trump administration.

Its all about Mattis. He’s the assumed perceived policy thinker. So it would the person.

  • Then is your answer to my question at the end a yes?
    – JK2
    Dec 25, 2018 at 3:01
  • "Then word what"??
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 25, 2018 at 3:42

The function of the word "what" (and in fact, any wh- question words) is a very complicated area of language study. It can be rather tricky to determine what part of the sentence they are actually referring to. "What," in the sentences you gave as examples, is the complement to the verbs "are" and "represents," respectively. This would mean that in these cases, it acts as a pronoun for the objects "dozen" and "thinkers," respectively. Thus, the grammatical correctness of their connection to a person as the subject of the sentence is merely a matter of intent. It would be the same as asking "What are you?" (i.e. a docter, a lawyer) instead of "Who are you?" (answer:Jacob Smith). These sentences are telling the person "what" they are, instead of "who" they are. So, "what" is not actually referring to the person at all, but to the idea or concept they embody. It is a subtle difference, but it allows the word to sound ok in our heads when we hear it. Unfortunately, it can make it sort of confusing as well. Hope that helps! John


Here's the real answer: You can write/speak that way when others are doing it. Remember, English (like most languages) does not spring from an unfalteringly consistent logical core of rules. Instead, we've got this language, and then people reverse-engineer rules onto it.

Real-Linguistically speaking (that's a pun on Real-politic, by the way) something's correct if people say it's correct. And this is constantly changing.

So when comparing two ways to write something, do a corpus search: type them each into Google and see which gets more hits. See which one your favorite publication or writer uses.

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