What’s What?

It is often the case that the commonest of sentences in English pose a challenge when we try to understand how they work grammatically. Imagine, for example, two friends arguing, one a bit impatient with the other: I don’t know what you’re talking about. He did what you told him to do. How do these two sentences convey their ideas? Or to ask the same question another way, what’s what doing? Finding the answer can sharpen our analytical skills.

The first step in analysis is always to identify the number of clauses a sentence has. Every clause, every combination of subject and verb, constitutes a thought. A sentence, in other words, has as many thoughts as it has clauses, and since we communicate by weaving thoughts together, it can be materially helpful to see where one clause ends and another begins. Each of the two sentences we are looking at begins with an independent clause: I don’t know and he did. Each of these principal verbs, know and did, are transitive, which means they each need an object to complete their meaning. Grammar will often yield its secrets by some straightforward questioning, so if we just ask what is it you don’t know? and what did he do?, we can readily see that the remainder of each sentence provides the object: what you’re talking about and what you told him to do. These answers remind us that whole groups of words, like these two clauses, can work grammatically as a unit.

So one way to understand the structure of these two sentences is by seeing a simple division between their main clauses and the clauses that constitute the objects of each main verb. But another question then quickly arises (as one always will): how do these object clauses work in their own right? If it’s true that clauses weave themselves together, then it would make sense to look more closely at the point of contact between them. The principal verb know in the first sentence abuts the word what, the first word of the object clause. That is to say, we cross over into the object by way of what, but once we’re there, we find ourselves in a thicket, because the object clause we’ve just entered has grammatical requirements of its own, requirements that will need the same word what to be satisfied. So what to do?

We can cut a path through this dense shrubbery with one simple recognition: as a connective between clauses, the word what constitutes a relative pronoun (just like the more common relatives who, which, and that), but it does so by combining two words in one. What means that which, where the word that is a demonstrative pronoun and which is the more familiar relative pronoun. This double relative, as it’s called, then breaks through the difficulties in one fell swoop. The demonstrative pronoun that becomes the real object of the transitive verb know (becoming a part of the independent clause), and the relative pronoun which then begins a proper relative clause, standing as the object of the preposition about. And we encounter exactly the same landscape in our second example. Again we simplify the double relative what into that which, and see that the demonstrative that is the object of did and the relative which is the object of the transitive verb told.

Not every analysis will immediately produce a better sentence, because the design of some sentences, like the two we’ve looked at here, are meant to convey a conversational tone which we would mar by applying the grammatical rules too strictly. Which is why the study of grammar can be so interesting when we pursue it with a light touch: it at once checks and allows the sentences we first write, giving us a standard to reach amidst the play of creation.

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If you have a question about English grammar or style
you would like addressed, please email me at
ultimo@writingsmartly.com.

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