An opinion article titled "Mattel and Margot Robbie's Barbie movie is not the film 2019 needs" has this passage:

Yet I don't think Mattel gives a tinker's cuss whether we're hating on Barbie or hitting her up for more plastic fantastic fun times so long as the controverting continues.

Because it's actually the oxygen of outrage — way more than the company's production of intersectional-feminism-Barbie and slightly-less-anorexic Barbie — that's keeping Barbie in the media and Mattel moving units.

What's that you say?

Being outraged that there's so much Barbie outrage is still playing straight into the evil one's tiny, Trump-ish hands? And Mattel still gets the money if we buy tickets to hate-watch instead of just watch-watch her new movie?

Oh God, excuse me for a moment.


How do you analyze the sentence in bold? Specifically, what's the syntactic role of the clause 'you say'?


Merriam-Webster has this definition of that:

4 a : the one : the thing : the kind : SOMETHING, ANYTHING
the truth of that which is true
the senses are that whereby we experience the world
what's that you say

(Boldface mine.)

M-W is saying that that means "the one" or "the thing" in what's that you say. Is this a different sentence than OP's?

  • Re: EDIT - Dictionaries don't define grammatical terms, any more than they give structural diagrams for proteins. Grammars define grammatical terms, because they're part of a system. The best dictionaries can do is give a lot of examples (the OED has over 3 million example sentences) and try to include as much as they can. They are not reliable sources of grammatical information. And American ones are not reliable sources of phonetic information. Mar 6, 2023 at 16:41

6 Answers 6


What's that you say?

"You" is the subject of the subordinate clause "you say."

Just to clarify- "that" is the demonstrative noun that is the subject of the sentence.

Please note there is an omitted/implied relative conjunction "that", that is connecting the two clauses.

What's that (that) you say?

In this context, English speakers would never say the implied/omitted that.

  • Please see EDIT. Do you think M-W's example is the same as OP's?
    – JK2
    Mar 6, 2023 at 4:32
  • +1 This is the right answer for the original sentence. But who knows what M-W was thinking when they wrote that? Mar 6, 2023 at 16:43
  • @JohnLawler I think I finally figured out what you're saying. So you're saying that the original sentence is a cleft construction where "it" has been replaced with demonstrative "that", and that this is not what M-W's quoted definition. Did I understand you correctly?
    – JK2
    Mar 8, 2023 at 3:58
  • Probably not. This is not a cleft sentence, as far as I can determine. It's just a variant on sentences like What was that, that you just said? with all the markers deleted so you can't tell what's gone on. Syntactically, that's a wh-question, followed by a relative clause. The only odd thing about it is the use of that in what would ordinarily be a non-restrictive relative, but that feels oddly natural here, following the other that; but it's a good reason to delete it as the original did. Mar 8, 2023 at 16:03

The bolded sentence is an example of the rhetorical device known as hypophora.

What does that mean, you ask?

[Hypophora is] asking a question and immediately answering it.

Here's a good example from Manner of Speaking, consisting of a quote by Winston Churchill:

“You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.”

In your example, "What's that you say?" is poorly punctuated. It should read "What's that, you say?" and then the role of the last two words would be more apparent. As it stands it could be parsed as an abridgement of "What is it that you say?" (although native readers will recognize it as the rhetorical device mentioned above).

Despite the highfalutin name and the fact that it is a rhetorical device, and that the example above is by a great statesman who used rhetoric to full advantage, hypophora is immensely common and not at all elevated in tone. In fact, salesmen and hucksters use it all the time. Consider the following:

But can such an inexpensive product really do so much for so little, you ask? I'm going to show you right now. Just spend two minutes watching this demonstration and you will be glad you stopped to look.


Given OP's own recent EDIT of the original question, it seems to me that there can be another interpretation, though this would be additional, not a replacement for my answer.

What's that you say?

This can work as an abridgement of a sentence like *What is it that you say/said/are saying?"

  • Please see EDIT. Do you think M-W's example is the same as OP's?
    – JK2
    Mar 6, 2023 at 9:28
  • I've got some questions about your EDIT. (1) What do you mean your EDIT would be additional, not a replacement for your answer? Your EDIT is not in line with your original answer. I think they're mutually exclusive. Do you mean either analysis is correct? (2) Doesn't your new interpretation ("What is it that you say/said/are saying?") analyze OP's example as a cleft construction with "it" being replaced with "that"? If it does, this is clearly different than M-W's approach, which treats "you say" as a relative clause modifying "that", not as a cleft construction of any sort.
    – JK2
    Mar 7, 2023 at 3:55
  • 1
    @JK2 I'm saying either answer can be correct. Surely you agree that there are many sentences with the same words that can be interpreted or analyzed differently, and can mean different things.
    – Robusto
    Mar 7, 2023 at 4:52

“You say” is a reduced relative clause.

The full sentence could be “What is that which you say?” or “What is that that you say?”

Ngram linked here has relatively few examples of “Whats that you say,” almost always in dialog, the most notable being a play by G.B. Shaw, Pygmalion.

  • Do you think OP's "that you say" constitute a noun phrase?
    – JK2
    Mar 8, 2023 at 0:27
  • The reformation of the sentence as, "What is that which you say?" is an incorrect interpretation. The source sentence references a hypothetical piece of dialogue, with the implication being that the speaker is the reader: "What's that?" This is an idiomatic expression in the same vein as, "Come again?" or, "What do you mean?" It's not literally asking what you're saying.
    – R Mac
    Mar 8, 2023 at 22:50

I'd like to offer a simpler explanation of what I think is going on here. The bolded sentence is formatted incorrectly. If written correctly, it would appear as:

"What's that?" [do] you say?

The syntactic role here is very simple to ascertain. "You" is the subject of the sentence, and "say" is the verb.


I'll propose three explanations, two of which are similar to ones that have already been suggested. I'll then address the M-W definition.

First explanation (along the lines of those from Robusto and R Mac)

The first clause ("what's that") is directly reported speech, while the second ("you say") is a reporting clause. If the directly reported speech were quoted, the sentence might be:

"What's that?" you say.

The author has chosen to omit the question marks from the reported clause.1 She has also moved the question mark to the end of the sentence, as is often done with ostensibly declarative clauses to give them an interrogative meaning.2 It is unusual that she didn't insert a comma to separate the reported and reporting clauses; doing so would have helped to make the sentence's structure clearer.

Second explanation (along the lines of those from Karlomanio and Xanne)

The clause "you say" is a restrictive relative clause modifying the demonstrative pronoun "that". The relativizer "that" has been omitted. Thus, the sentence would be:

What's that [[that]] you say?

Something similar appears in "Macbeth", for example:

Is this a dagger which I see before me . . .

The restrictive relative clause "which I see before me" clearly modifies the demonstrative pronoun "this" (and not "a dagger").

Third explanation

The clause "you say" might be considered a parenthetical element. This possibility is perhaps most obvious if we move it to a different position:

What (you say) is that?

As with most parenthetical elements, the parentheses may be replaced by commas or dashes. It is unusual not to include any paired punctuation.

In any of these cases, the sentence's second word ("that") is a demonstrative pronoun. The most appropriate definition from M-W is probably the first:

the person, thing, or idea indicated, mentioned, or understood from the situation

The definition included in the question's edit refers to a more vague thing (similar to "something") established as a kind of "straw man" to be described more thoroughly later. That is certainly true of the first two example sentences:

the truth of that which is true
the senses are that whereby we experience the world

However, it is not true of the third example sentence (which is the same as OP's sentence). I suspect that that is what John Lawler meant when he wrote in a commment, "who knows what M-W was thinking when they wrote that?" I wonder the same thing.

1 This practice is licensed by CMOS 14th ed., which gives some examples: "What for? he wondered." (section 5.22) "Why shouldn't I? he suddenly asked himself." (section 5.84)

2 This is addressed by CMOS 14th ed. section 5.25: "A sentence essentially declarative or imperative in structure may become interrogative by the substitution of a question mark for the period."

  • So are you saying that M-W's first two examples can be rewritten with free relative what as the truth of what is true and the senses are what we experience the world by, but that the third cannot be rewritten as what's what you say?
    – JK2
    Mar 7, 2023 at 4:41
  • @JK2 Not exactly, because I consider "what's what you say" (as awkward as it sounds) to be grammatical. Mar 7, 2023 at 4:55
  • I'm not asking if "what's what you say" is grammatical or not. What I'm asking is whether "what's that you say" means the same thing as "what's what you say". Your second explanation seems to be saying that they do not mean the same thing.
    – JK2
    Mar 7, 2023 at 5:02
  • @JK2 Yes, they do mean the same thing. I'm not sure how my second explanation says otherwise. (Macbeth's line, "combining" the relative pronoun with its antecedent, would be "Is what I see before me a dagger . . .".) Mar 7, 2023 at 5:21
  • In your answer, you say that "that" is a demonstrative pronoun in "What's that you say?". But in "What's what you say?", "what you say" doesn't have any demonstrative property, if you will. Similarly, in Macbeth's line, "this" is a demonstrative pronoun, but "what I see before me" doesn't have any such property. So how can they mean the same thing? //If they mean the same thing, why would you distinguish M-W's third example from the other two in the last section of your answer?
    – JK2
    Mar 7, 2023 at 5:38

What's that you say.

In context, the sentence is rhetorical.

This is important because the speaker has assumed an answer to his own question (and gives his response in the following text) and this licenses the use of the present tense in order to indicate a response that is habitual/frequent/regular.

= What's that [that you say]. the relative clause becomes apparent

= What is that sentence [that you say]. - we give the referent of "that"

= What is that sentence [that you have just said/were saying]. - we set the tense to reflect the pretence that the speakers has not heard.

= What was that remark that you just made. - we make the example idiomatic.


You is the subject of a relative clause.

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