1

A friend of mine wrote me this:

I understand everything (what) you write.

I mentioned that it was probably better to write 'that' instead of 'what´. We were not able to find the correct answer, partly because it is not our mother tongue.

  • I'm flagging this as off-topic ("belongs on ELL"). Hi Gerda, you may not be aware that this EL&U site is for "linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts", whereas your question is probably more suited to our other site English Language Learners. If you have a question for ELL, be sure to read their guidance on what you can ask. :-) – Chappo Feb 1 at 3:36
  • Please do not close: edit. There is a really good question here. – Cascabel Feb 1 at 21:14
  • 1
    Possible duplicate of Use of "what" vs "that" – shoover Feb 1 at 21:17
  • @shoover puhlease. The answers there are inadequate; Colin Fine's answer here should be the archival answer. – Cascabel Feb 1 at 21:20
  • 'Everything what you right' sounds like Estuary English (that is, it is not standard English, but in some dialects it is how you say it). – Mitch Feb 13 at 14:38
3

What can be used as a fused relative pronoun - the equivalent of "that which". So "I understand what you write" is grammatical and idiomatic.

You are trying to use it as a relative pronoun or subordinator, qualifying everything. This is common in some varieties of English, but not (as far as I know) in any standard varieties. So "I understand everything what you wrote" is not grammatical in standard English. (For a well-known example of this non-standard usage, see The Play What I Wrote, a play about comedy double acts. The title is a catch phrase that the duo Morcambe and Wise used in their show, which was deliberately non-standard for comic effect. )

So you need to follow "everything" with either a separate relative pronoun ("which") or a subordinator ("that") - or nothing, because where the relative pronoun is not the subject of the relative clause, you can omit it.

I would say these are in reverse order of naturalness, so the most natural form in speech is

I understand everything you write.

The next most common, and slightly more formal, is

I understand everything that you write.

The third possibility, while grammatical, is less usual:

I understand everything which you write.

(You may find people who say that you can't use "which" in a restrictive relative clause. They are wrong. Oliver Kamm says in Accidence Will Happen: "One thing you won't find in style guides that advocate the that/which rule is the slightest substantiation for it").

  • I should research this question for days and days instead of asking it, but...in the 2nd sentence above, is "that" not the object of the relative clause? I thought "that" wouldn't be considered a subordinator if it served a syntactic function (or whatever they call it), but obviously, I don't know what I'm talking about. – KannE Jan 31 at 18:49
  • I had a discussion about this here on ELU a few years back (I'll see if I can find it, but I don't think there's a way to search in comments), where somebody persuaded me with some difficulty that that is not a relative pronoun, but a subordinator that in many contexts can replace a relative pronoun. – Colin Fine Jan 31 at 18:57
  • Here is a thread where I referred to the previous discussion! – Colin Fine Jan 31 at 19:01
  • The comments here indicate that this analysis is to be found in CGEL. I wish I could find the comment thread here where somebody convinced me. – Colin Fine Jan 31 at 19:09
  • 1
    Found it, @KannE! My conversation with Aaron in the comments to my answer to this question – Colin Fine Jan 31 at 19:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.