The syntax below is grammatical in colloquial American English and I'm wondering how the sentence is analyzed grammatically.

What's going on at work these days that you're always on the phone?

  • 4
    Try putting such before that. The meaning is the same. What's the syntax? Sep 30 at 19:36
  • such I have long been an admirer of such. And her first cousin, so.
    – TimR
    Sep 30 at 20:15

2 Answers 2


Huddleston & Pullum (2002) discuss this, describing it as a case where a declarative content clause functions as an adjunct in clause structure (pp. 969-970).

They give the example:

What has happened, that you are looking so worried?

They have this to say about the construction:

The type of content clause we have in [i] functions as adjunct to interrogative clauses. Semantically the adjunct can be regarded as resultative: the presupposition of the question can be glossed as "Something has happened with the result that you are looking worried."


First of all, it's important to address the possibility of that being used here as a relative pronoun. I'd say this is unlikely here, and some would say an 'on' is missing (though this would sound clumsy), but it is not impossible:

  • What's going on at work these days that you're always on the phone?


  • What's going on at work on these particular days when/on which you're always on the phone?


The other reading is formal and heading for archaic, using that as a conjunction, a variant of 'in that':

  • What's going on at work these days that you're always on the phone?


  • #What's going on at work these days in that / ... inasmuch as you're always on the phone?

Compare the well-known verse Psalm 8:4:

  • What is man, that thou art mindful of him? [[KJV; BibleHub]

(https://biblehub.com/psalms/8-4.htm)] [NKJV drops the comma]

The Message explains by paraphrasing:

  • ... Then I look at my micro-self and wonder, Why do you bother with us? Why take a second look our way?

The fuller version is 'in that':

in that ... [or in so far as] (conjunction):

because or to the extent that; inasmuch as

  • I regret my remark in that it upset you


#As TimR points out, the sentence uses 'that / in that / inasmuch as' to focus the query on the work-related reason why the addressee is having to spend so much time on the phone:

  • What's going on at work these days which means you're always having to be on the phone?

Merriam-Webster gives the shorter version:

that [2 0f 5] [conjunction]


2 (2) —used as a function word to introduce a subordinate clause expressing a reason or cause

  • rejoice that you are lightened of a load —Robert Browning

Note that 'you are lightened of a load' is a main clause, but '[in] that' is classed as a subordinating conjunction (like 'because') as there is a semantic dependency on the principal clause ('Rejoice[!]).

  • 2
    I hear the that-clause as a consequence of what is going on at work these days. Not that it's happening, but it's as if "to explain the fact" has been omitted.
    – TimR
    Sep 30 at 11:55
  • Yes. I've added that in; 'inasmuch as' is itself polysemous. // Isn't the term 'that-clause' reserved for cases where 'that' is a complementiser (He knew [that John was ill]'? Sep 30 at 12:08
  • I'm not so up on current terminology that I could say one way or another. I use that-clause to avoid terminology. It is language-specific so it's not ideal as a linguistic term.
    – TimR
    Sep 30 at 12:14
  • 1
    It's an ill-defined term, apparently. << Nordquist has << Chalker and Weiner point out that relative clauses beginning with that (eg "What's all this nonsense that you're repeating") are "not always included in this category" (Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar). >> Sep 30 at 14:43
  • 1
    "That" has long been dismissed as being a relative pronoun. CGEL gives a number of solid reasons. It's the same "that" that introduces relative clauses and declarative content clauses. Alphabet is spot-on when he says that the content clause is an adjunct with a semantically resultative interpretation.
    – BillJ
    Sep 30 at 16:34

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