I have already learned what is the general difference between conjunctions and conjuncting pronouns, and that is the fact that a pronoun can be a subject or an object in the clause whereas a conjunction can not. But it seems, there are still exceptions like "whoever" and "whatever".

So, in the sentence below "whatever" is certainly a pronoun. Here, the dependent clause is a noun clause.

You are free to do whatever you want.

But in the next sentence, which contains adverbial clause, "whatever" seems to be a conjunction (because like any subordinating conjunction, it shows the relationship between clauses).

I won`t leave her whatever happens.

This I more or less understood although I can`t quite get why Macmillan dictionary says that "whatever "can be both pronoun and conjunction while Lexico (Oxford) says that it can only be a pronoun...

But the real trouble is from now on! In the sentence

Whatever decision he made I would support it.

"whatever" seems to function like a conjunction, but it`s placed before the noun just like a determiner. So, what is it here: determiner or conjunction? Or maybe even pronoun?

I don`t get it! Please, help me.

  • [correction: I have already learned what general difference is between etc.]
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 20:20
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    "Whatever" belongs solely to the determinative category, either interrogative ("Whatever present you buy for him, he won't be satisfied") or relative ("We'll use whatever edition is available").
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 8:29
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    @LPH: No: "Whatever present you buy for him" is not a sentence but an interrogative clause functioning as an adjunct.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 8:46
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    @LPH. It's the same kind of construction. "Whatever decision he made" is an interrogative clause functioning as an adjunct in an exhaustive conditional. You need to study this kind of construction.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 8:52
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    @LPH. There is no internal marker of subordination: it is shown to be subordinate by virtue of its function in the larger construction.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 8:57

2 Answers 2

  • Whatever decision he made I would support it.

The parsing of this sentence corresponds well to a case analysed in CoGEL, except for a small difference which amounts to the use of an article. That is, the analysis would be perfectly right if the sentence were written as follows.

  • Whatever the decision he made I would support it.

Therefore, I'll still provide this explanation, as it is closely connected.

In this sentence "Whatever the decision he made" is termed universal conditional-concessive clause and "whatever" is a subordinator (CoGEL 14.20 p. 1006). It is called universal because the wh-word implies a totality; the other type (alternative conditional-concessive) is introduced by "whether … or" or "or". The reason for combining "conditional" with "concessive" is that it is found that in this context there is overlap between the two ideas. (CoGEL 15.41, pp. 1099-1100)

It is a little tricky as a verb is omitted. The sentence without ellipsis, which is usable too, could read as follows.

  • Whatever would be the decision (that) he made I would support it.

The concessive implication comes through inferences such as "even if a decision had been less than good I would have supported it".

(CoGEL 15.42, pp. 1001-1002)
Note The verb "be" can be omitted from a universal clause if the subject of an SVC clause is an abstract noun phrase:
Whatever your problems (are/may be), they can't be worse than mine.

  • 1
    "Whatever" is never a subordinator. That's simply nonsense.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 7:09
  • @BillJ I/ Michael Swan, Practical English Usage, OUP 1996, p.595 n° 596 § 1 (meaning and use): "_A word of this kind has a double function, like a relative pronoun or adverb (see 473): it acts as a subject, object or adverb in its own clause, but it also acts as a conjunction, joining its clause to the rest of the sentence. II/ A clause such as "whatever happens" can't stand on its own; therefore it is a dependent clause in the sentence where it is found. Only "whatever" can be a marker of that dependence; it is therefore a subordinator.
    – LPH
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 8:06
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    Ignore Swan -- he is wrong. "Whatever" is always a determinative. English has only 5 subordinators: "that", "for", "to", "whether", and "if".
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 8:22
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    @BillJ Ignore Swan is easier said than done: what's your parsing of these two clauses? You'll never get away with two independent clauses. What's left?
    – LPH
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 8:25
  • @BillJ There is, however, one possibility, albeit somewhat far-fetched: you can suppose an extreme case ellipsis of "and this is so". In this case you can speak of two coordinated independent clauses, but can we go as far as that? I don't know at all, this means allowing multiple interpretations in all sorts of situations, havoc in perspective. (1/2)
    – LPH
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 8:33

Pronoun: 1880 M. Oliphant He that will Not xxiii Whatever can you want to emigrate for?

Pronoun: As nominal relative, in a generalized or indefinite sense: 1883 D. C. Murray Hearts i We'll lay in whatever you want to-morrow.

Adverb: 1980 New Musical Express 12 Jan. 33/1 Whatever, the myth looks momentous in its sleek new American threads.

Noun: 2001 Jerusalem Post (Electronic ed.) 23 Feb. 7 I drove down there..and bought..this stuff. It contains seven different whatevers. On the package it said ‘Good for peace in the home against evil eye and all kinds of disturbances and fear’.

Adjective: 1884 Marshall's Tennis Cuts 94 That a player using a racket had no chance whatever against an opponent catching and throwing the ball.

Determiner: 1906 H. Belloc Hills & Sea 176 In whatever place a man may be the spring will come to him.

  • Yet, not a conjunction in sight. Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 20:45
  • Lexico acknowledges an adverb and not an adjective in case 4 but an adverb: lexico.com/definition/whatever. In fact, as far as lexico is concerned this word can't be an adjective. It is not an adjective in CoGEL.
    – LPH
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 20:52
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    I hate to burst your bubble, but "whatever" belongs solely to the determinative category, either interrogative, e.g. "Whatever present you buy for him, he won't be satisfied", or relative, e.g. "We'll use whatever edition is available".
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 9:17
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    @BillJ - Yeah... whatever...
    – Greybeard
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 15:17

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