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ldoceonline.com:

1. There was nothing the matter with it when I lent it to him.

2. She had something the matter with her back.

oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com:

3. There's something the matter with my eyes.

It's a strange word order for me.

Is there any rule of using "indefinite pronoun + noun"?

If there's an ellipsis, then what text is omitted?

Thanks!


My question has nothing to do with the question: How does the phrase "Is something the matter?" make sense?. In that question a non-inverted word order is "Something is the matter." We see the verb "is" between "something" and "the matter". In my question there isn't any verb between them. I absolutely can't understand how someone could think that this is the same questions.

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  • 1
    There's no ellipsis. "The matter" is an idiomatic expression meaning "wrong".
    – BillJ
    Jul 16, 2019 at 9:19
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth: No offense, but I think that my answer here to the specific question about the word order in "something the matter" is better researched and more specific than your answer there, which talks about a number of different idioms and supplies an apparently unsupported guess that "'Is something the matter?' is a shortened form of an expression like the logical 'Is something I can help with the matter causing you concern?'"
    – herisson
    Jul 16, 2019 at 21:26
  • @sumelic I quite agree. But the analysis << 'the matter' is best regarded as an adjectival lexeme; it = 'wrong' in the problematic sense >> was first approached there. I'm at a loss as to how to handle these situations; I believe such threads perhaps need merging. // Note that JL's 'there-insertion and be-deletion' provides the true analysis of the unusual construction here. 'She had something the matter / wrong with her back.' Jul 17, 2019 at 16:04

3 Answers 3

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As a practical matter, I wouldn't recommend trying to analyze the grammar of "something the matter" in terms of "the matter" being a noun phrase. It looks like one, but I don't know of any way in which it behaves like one in this context. I also don't know of any useful way to explain the grammar with the concept of ellipsis.

Idiomatically, "the matter" can be used the same way as an adjective

Rather, I would recommend treating "the matter" in this expression as an indivisible idiomatic unit. It is synonymous with and can be replaced with the postpositive adjective "wrong":

  • There was nothing the matter with it when I lent it to him. = There was nothing wrong with it...

  • She had something the matter with her back. = She had something wrong with her back.

  • There's something the matter with my eyes. = There's something wrong with my eyes.

Collins COBUILD English Usage (accessible through The Free Dictionary by Farlex) gives the same explanation of how to use "the matter":

You use the matter in the same way as an adjective like wrong. For example, instead of saying 'Is something wrong?' you can say 'Is something the matter?'

(© HarperCollins Publishers 1992, 2004, 2011, 2012)

Some other material on the web I've found that brings up this topic:

How this usage developed

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any detailed account of how "the matter" came to be used this way.

Reinterpretation of sentences starting with "what is the matter (with X)?"

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for matter seems to hint that "the matter" has been reanalyzed as an adjective based on its usage in sentences like "What is the matter (with X)?" Specifically, the OED says "In recent colloquial use (e.g. quot. 1925) sometimes interpreted as a predicative adjective in the sense ‘wrong, amiss’."

This reinterpretation seems to have been possible because sentences of the form "What is [X]?" are syntactically ambiguous: the subject can be either "What" or "[X]", and when "What" is the subject, "[X]" can be either a noun phrase or an adjective (or it could even be something else, like a prepositional phrase, but that's not relevant to your question).

There is evidence that "the matter" has sometimes been used as a subject noun phrase in sentences like this. For example, the word order in the following OED citation implies that "the matter" is the subject of the clause:

1560 J. Daus tr. J. Sleidane Commentaries f. cccxxiiiv No man knew what the matter was.

So we can see that there has been some variability in the usage of this expression. In fact, it seems that we still see variation in the structure of sentences like this today: some speakers might say "I didn't know what the matter was with him", while others might say "I didn't know what was the matter with him". "The matter" is used like the adjective "wrong" in the second sentence, but not in the first. Here are some online posts that discuss the variability in usage in these kinds of sentences:

My assumption would be that constructions like "nothing the matter with", "something the matter with", etc. are based on that reinterpretation of "the matter" as an adjective (but one that can only be used predicatively or postpositively, not before a noun).

A possible comparison: "fun" (n.) > "fun" (adj.)

A phenomenon that seems somewhat similar to me is the development of the adjective fun from reinterpretation of sentences containing the noun fun without a definite article (such as "It was fun").

A similar-looking construction that might not be related

I have no idea whether the "something the matter (with)" construction is actually related to the following constructions, but on a superficial level, I think they look similar.

You can find "the" after "something" in the expression "something the size of...", and in some similar expressions that are described in more detail in the question here: It's the size of a brick; What size shirt/shoes do you take?; I have a daughter your age

As the title of the question demonstrates, "the size of..." can be used not only after indefinite pronouns, but also after regular nouns.

Sadly, that question didn't get any answer from a linguist, but you can see my attempt at analyzing, or at least discussing, that construction on the linked page.

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  • The Oxford link supplied by the OP defines matter as a subject or situation that you must consider or deal with. In this sense, "What is the matter?" means "What is the problem?", so I suppose expressions like something the matter with... have evolved from this. Jul 16, 2019 at 7:58
  • @sumelic I agree that the idiomatic "the matter" means "wrong".
    – BillJ
    Jul 16, 2019 at 9:08
  • @BillJ: I just thought about a construction that looks similar: "something the size of __". That seems to be related to the predicative "the size of __" in sentences like "It is the size of __". Do you think the resemblance is meaningful, or is it a coincidence?
    – herisson
    Jul 16, 2019 at 21:43
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You're dealing with an idiom.

  • something be the matter (with X)

is a verbal idiom that means 'something is wrong, broken, sick, or otherwise out of order'. It can be applied to machines, emotions, health, or life in general. Intransitively, it means there is a problem (indefinite -- something or anything is the usual word, or nothing if it's negative). Transitively, it identifies the problem locus using the preposition with.

In its normal usage,

  • Something is the matter with his kidneys.

it often occurs with There-Insertion, producing

  • There's something the matter with his kidneys.

Note that the same construction occurs with similar predicates like wrong:

  • There's something wrong with his kidneys.

And they can often be used alone, viz.

  • Is something wrong? Is anything the matter?
  • Is there anything wrong? Is there something the matter?
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  • Sorry, I can't understand why you consider "something be the matter". In my question there isn't any verb between "something" and "the matter".
    – Loviii
    Jul 17, 2019 at 4:19
  • Something be the matter is the base form of the construction.The sentence uses an auxiliary be, but in your examples it's either not in the same place as it is in the base form, or else it's been deleted. Auxiliaries do different things in different constructions. Jul 17, 2019 at 13:48
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I agree with @sumelic that 'the matter' equates to 'wrong', but only semantically. Syntactically, they're not the same, because you can replace 'the matter' with 'wrong' in any example but not the other way around.

In all your examples, 'the matter' works, so you can replace it with 'wrong'. But there are many constructions where you cannot replace 'wrong' with 'the matter', as follows:

a1. I did something/nothing wrong.

a2. *I did something/nothing the matter.

b1. Something/nothing wrong happened.

b2. *Something/nothing the matter happened.

What these counterexamples prove is that 'the matter' can only substitute for 'wrong' in limited constructions, and that 'something/nothing the matter' cannot constitute a noun phrase per se, whereas 'something/nothing wrong' can.

If the foregoing is true, the real question is not whether there is any rule of using "indefinite pronoun + noun", but whether there is any syntactic reason for your examples allowing 'the matter' instead of 'wrong':

  1. There was nothing the matter with it when I lent it to him.

  2. She had something the matter with her back.

  3. There's something the matter with my eyes.

And I think there is a reason. Your examples can all be rephrased as follows:

1'. Nothing was the matter with it when I lent it to him.

2'. Something was the matter with her back.

3'. Something is the matter with my eyes.

This goes to show that 'something/nothing the matter' in your examples is NOT a single unit that is inseparable, despite your assumption otherwise.

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  • You're choosing different senses of 'the matter' to give your counterexamples. Semantically, (1) 'I did nothing wrong' and (2) 'There is something wrong with her back' use different senses of 'wrong': sinful / improper(ly) / contrary to expected procedure vs medically suspect. //// I'll do the same with 'the matter': (3) 'The matter is closed' and (4) 'There is something the matter with her back'. You can't substitute 'wrong' for 'the matter' in (3). //// 'Wrong' and 'the matter' overlap in distribution to a limited degree, as do all synonyms. Jul 17, 2019 at 16:14
  • @EdwinAshworth Thanks for pointing that out. But I'm afraid (3) cannot be used as a counterexample, because (3) doesn't have the construction 'something/nothing the matter'. As for the different senses of 'wrong', how about this example? I've been searching for something wrong with you. Can you substitute 'the matter' for 'wrong' here?
    – listeneva
    Jul 17, 2019 at 16:42
  • I'm showing that you have to pinpoint 'parallel' / counter-examples. // Both are to my ear distinctly odd-sounding, but I'd say they're equally 'acceptable' (medical domain). Jul 17, 2019 at 16:59
  • @EdwinAshworth Alright. Could you come up with a sentence whose grammatical subject is "something/nothing the matter"? (Note that 'there' is the grammatical subject in the OP's first and third examples.)
    – listeneva
    Jul 18, 2019 at 1:08
  • @EdwinAshworth Oh, and the sentence can work outside a medical domain: "My dear, I’ve been searching for something wrong with you, but your technique is impeccable, and I simply can’t find anything wrong." This is what a ballet instructor said. thecrimson.com/article/2018/3/30/kristina-anapau-interview And I wouldn't use 'the matter' instead of 'wrong' there.
    – listeneva
    Jul 18, 2019 at 1:11

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