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I have a question about noun clauses beginning with "what" involving infinitives. First, consider the following group of sentences.

(1a) What does it take to learn from the past?

(1b) It takes [quality X] to learn from the past.

(1c) We do not have what it takes to learn from the past.

Now I want to make another group of sentences following the same pattern.

(2a) What is important to learn from the past?

(2b) It is important to learn [lesson Y] from the past.

The question is what should (2c) be? The sentence

(2c) We have not learned what is important to learn from the past.

sounds natural, but the sentence

(2c') We have not learned what it is important to learn from the past.

seems more grammatical. In fact, my question arose because I came across a sentence of the type (2c') in reading a translation of old theology text:

By the knowledge of God, I understand that by which we not only conceive that there is some God, but also apprehend what it is for our interest, and conducive to his glory, what, in short, it is befitting to know concerning him.

                — Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin

Thanks for the detailed response of @LPH. My main takeaway is that there are two types of noun-clause beginning with "what":

(1) "what" fills the role of the subject of some verb, e.g. "what is important to learn from the past".

(2) "what" fills the role of the object of some verb, e.g. "what it is important to learn from the past"

On a related note, does this mean it is also grammatical to say

[Lesson Y] is important to learn from the past.

instead of

It is important to learn [lesson Y] from the past.

?

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  • Sentence 2c seems to me to be saying we have not learned which lesson it is that we need to learn from the past. We may discover which lesson we need to learn without learning the lesson itself. We may also learn several lessons from the past without learning which of them is important.
    – Peter
    Jul 22 at 9:41
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    "(Such and such is) what it is befitting to know concerning him" is the answer to "It is befitting to know what concerning God?" Here you have an impersonal construction "it is befitting".
    – Stuart F
    Jul 22 at 10:28
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    You've got the sentences all mixed up, with many different constructions represented, some grammatical, others not. What's your question, please? Jul 22 at 14:49
  • @JohnLawler May I know your view on which of these sentences are grammatical and which are not? Thanks. Jul 23 at 4:49
  • Your first 2c is correct: "We have not learned [what is important to learn from the past]". The bracketed element is a subordinate interrogative clause (embedded question) meaning "We have not learned the answer to the question 'What is important to learn from the past?'" "What" is the subject. Note that 2c' is ungrammatical.
    – BillJ
    Jul 23 at 7:24
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According to my understanding, both sentences (2c, 2c') are grammatical and express two different notions. I make out the respective meanings to be as follows.

  • We have not learned what is important to learn from the past.
    (The things are important from the point of view of learning; the focus is on the things. "What" is the subject of "is".)

We haven't learned what are the things in the past that it should be important to learn, we do not know whether there are any (because we couldn't study that matter or because there is no way one can come to a conclusion, etc.).

  • We have not learned what it is important to learn from the past.
    (The learning of the things is important; the focus is on the recognized fact that this type of learning is important. "What" is the object of "learn" ('it is important to learn "what" ').)

"It" is impersonal "it". We know that(, most likely,) there are important things to learn from the past, without knowing precisely which, or we might even know which, nevertheless, whether the former or the latter, we haven't learned any.

By the knowledge of God, I understand that by which we not only conceive that there is some God, but also apprehend what it is for our interest, and conducive to his glory, what, in short, it is befitting to know concerning him.

A simplification that changes nothing to the syntax and semantics of what is being retained (so as to see clearer through the maze)

By the knowledge of God, I understand that by which we apprehend what it is for our interest to know concerning him.

"It" is impersonal "it". We know the facts that are for our interest to know and I apprehend (perceive with the intellect) them; if "it" were not used, then, the meaning would be "whatever the facts that are in our interest to know I apprehend them.

The comment could be made that in the present context of apprehension of admittedly well know facts towards a definition of the knowledge of God there is the implication of a definition of what is already defined, therefore some sort of fallacy (defining the defined). Therefore, it is likely that "it" should not be used in this sentence.

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  • Thanks for the detailed response. My main takeaway is that there are two types of noun-clause beginning with "what": (1) "what" fills the role of the subject of some verb, e.g. "what is important to learn from the past". (2) "what" fills the role of the object of some verb, e.g. "what it is important to learn from the past" On a related noted, does this mean it is also grammatical to say "[Lesson Y] is important to learn from the past" instead of "It is important to learn [lesson Y] from the past"? Jul 22 at 20:13
  • As for the parsing of the sentence "By the knowledge of God...", it seems you missed the part "I understand that by which". In my view, a simplification would be "By the knowledge of God, I understand that by which we [not only...but also] apprehend what it is befitting to know concerning him." Jul 22 at 20:20
  • @AlienPebble I don't feel that "[Lesson Y] is important to learn from the past" is idiomatic as meaning "[lesson Y] is important on the ground of the knowledge we get from it on the past", but that's what I took it to mean, in particular as it was just an example to show your point. // Yes, it could have been simplified less, but "but also" introduces a coordinated clause which does not impinge on the syntax of the other clause; so I got rid of it, even if as regards what the text communicates really the definition of "knowledge of God by [X] (or vice versa) is not complete.
    – LPH
    Jul 22 at 20:39
  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems the subject of "apprehend" is not "I", but "we" - the "but also apprehend..." is parallel to the "we not only conceive...", both of which are subordinate to the "by which". Jul 22 at 21:01
  • My interpretation of the sentence is this: the author is speaking in the first person ("I") about his understanding of what constitutes "knowledge of God", which he describes/defines in "operational" terms, i.e. in terms of what people ("we") could do with such knowledge ("that") - namely, "not only conceive" the existence of some divine entity, "but also apprehend" its practical significance etc ("what it is for our interest... to know concerning him"). Jul 22 at 21:01

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