We are essentially creatures of habit. If you have any question about this, just transfer your wristwatch to the other hand. Even though it should not make the slightest difference on which hand it is worn, you will soon find that you are very aware of the change.

This is the context. Let's consider this part:

It should not make the slightest difference on which hand it is worn.

An ELL user has asked about the function of the it in this sentence, and I'd like to answer their question. As far as I know, this phenomenon is called extraposition. The clause on which hand it is worn has been moved to the end of the sentence, with the dummy it taking its place as the subject. To show how this phenomenon works, I'd like to use this sentence:

On which hand it is worn should not make the slightest difference.

I'm not a native speaker. I asked about my paraphrase on a couple of ELL websites, and everyone who answered said it was grammatical. However, here is an excerpt from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Chapter 12, 6.1d:

[7]         FUSED RELATIVE                         INTEGRATED RELATIVE
i  a. What she referred to was Riga.  b. The city which she referred to was Riga.
ii a. *To what she referred was Riga. b. The city to which she referred was Riga.

When the relativised element is complement of a preposition the fused construction requires that the preposition be stranded, as in [ia]: it cannot be fronted along with its complement, as it can in the integrated relative construction [iib]. The difference in grammaticality here reflects the fact that which she referred to is a clause while what she referred to is an NP. Fronting the preposition in the integrated construction places it at the beginning of the clause, while fronting it in the fused construction places it before the NP. The deviance of [iia] is thus comparable to that of *To the city which she referred was Riga. In the integrated case the antecedent city and the relative pronoun which are distinct and the preposition can come between them, but in the fused case the antecedent and relative pronoun are not distinct and hence there is no place for a fronted preposition to occupy.

Example [iia] has the same structure as my paraphrase above — both have a preposition before a relative pronoun — yet [iia] is ungrammatical.

I asked about [iia] and got mixed answers: some said it was grammatical, some said it wasn't. I didn't ask why because I didn't expect those people to be linguists or teachers.

  • Is the clause in my example also a fused relative?
  • Why is my example correct while the CGEL one is not?
  • How well educated in English grammar were the native speakers you asked? That is, could they explain at the level of detail given by the CGEL why it was grammatical, or did they merely feel that it was? Did you ask those same people whether they thought "To what she referred was Riga" was grammatical? These constructions are unnatural in English and so we don't instinctively know whether they're officially considered grammatical or not. The more idiomatic way to phrase your sentence would be, "Which hand it's worn on should not matter."
    – Juhasz
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 21:55
  • @Juhasz I've updated my post. Some said the CGEL example was grammatical, some said it wasn't. I didn't ask for an explanation because I didn't expect any of them to be teachers or linguists. I'm sure most if not all of them aren't.
    – athlonusm
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 18:46
  • I'm afraid I don't really understand this question. But the use of "it" in the words "It should not make the slightest difference" can be called an "expletive." See merriam-webster.com/dictionary/expletive.
    – Chaim
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 18:52
  • Even 'It makes no difference which pen you use' hints (at least) at being a Ross-constraint violation, but it's idiomatic. 'It makes no difference on which hand you wear your watch' still sounds reasonably idiomatic, and 'It makes no difference which hand you wear your watch on' certainly so, but 'On which hand you wear your watch makes no difference / not the slightest difference' sound unacceptable to my ears. // The initial 'it' here is certainly dummy, a 'weighty-subject-shoving-to-the-back-of the-sentence' device. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 19:31

1 Answer 1


I think that the quoted CGEL passage does not apply, because "On which hand it is worn should not make the slightest difference" does not contain a fused relative construction.

Rather than a relative construction, it seems to be an interrogative construction. ""On which hand it is worn" is not a noun phrase referring to the hand itself: instead, it means something like "The answer to the question 'On which hand is it worn?'", and as you noted in your question, it seems to internally have the structure of a clause (even though in the structure of the surrounding sentence, this clause occupies the place of the subject).

A set of similar example sentences that do involve a fused relative would I think be as follows:

  1. "What it was worn on was his right hand." (= "[The thing which it was worn on] was his right hand.")
    Seems to be grammatical, even if a bit awkward.

  2. *"On what it was worn was his right hand."
    Ungrammatical, according to the CGEL quote. I think I agree with that judgement.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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