I would like to know the meaning of the word "what" in the following sentence.

To his library in Cable House he will add volumes in which are contained what human knowledge, in the 1820s, has to offer on the mystery of the human mind.

I would like to know which option is correct.

  1. what = (the) things that
  2. what = as many as
  3. what = all that
  4. None of the above

If (4) is correct, what does this "what" mean? The use of "are" indicates that this "what" is a substitute for a plural noun. "He" is not a medical expert.

For reference, below is the paragraph that includes this sentence.

The times cannot be numbered when Thomas Atkinson will ask, Why? Why? And again Why? (For heartache, too, inspires its own sad curiosity.) Not content with the verdict of physicians, he will embark, himself, on the study of the brain and the nervous system. To his library in Cable House he will add volumes in which are contained what human knowledge, in the 1820s, has to offer on the mystery of the human mind. Where once he pored over the topography of the Fens and the innumerable complexities of drainage, flood control and pumping systems, he will pore over the even more intricate topography of the medulla and the cerebellum, which have, so he discovers, their own networks of channels and ducts and their own dependence on the constant distribution of fluids. But this is an internal land which cannot be redeemed, cannot be reclaimed, once it is lost. (Adapted from Waterland, a 1983 novel by Graham Swift.)


1 Answer 1


All the wh-words are odd, being over 4000 years old that we can trace, back to Proto-Indo-European *kʷo-. What shares with how the distinction of not being usable as a relative pronoun:

  • *the book what earned the most
  • *the book what he wrote
  • *the way how he did it

(though what does act as an interrogative pronoun:

  • What did you think I said?)

However, language rarely wastes resources, and there is a construction involving relatives that what is used for. It's called by several names in the trade, but a Fused Relative Clause is what I'll call it here.

A regular relative clause like who came to dinner in The Man Who Came To Dinner has to modify (and normally come right after) its "antecedent" noun, the noun it modifies (in this case, Man). Most relative clauses are in structures with a noun antecedent, like

  • the book [that/which interests her]
    (where the relative pronoun that or which is required, because it's subject)


  • the book [(that/which) she wrote]
    (where the pronoun is optional because it isn't subject of the [bracketed] relative clause)

That's a normal relative clause construction: Head Noun + Relative clause. But a fused relative clause combines the meaning of an indefinite head noun with a relative clause that defines it, stuffing all this into what, which can be subject, or not. It's a short form that's common enough. In the saying

  • What goes up must come down

the first 3 words are a fused relative clause; you can almost always substitute that which goes up or things which go up or whatever goes up, or similar indefinite phrases, but what is shorter and much pithier than that which.

You also get fused relatives using who for indefinite people, instead of what for indefinite things:

  • Who steals my purse steals trash.
  • So (1) and (3) of OP's options are both plausible? Oct 17, 2022 at 16:25

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