A what-clause is a noun clause starting with the marker word what. Because it’s a noun clause, it can be subject, direct object of verb, object of preposition, subject complement, etc. in a sentence. Examples:
(Note: Comments that go with examples are enclosed in square brackets. Second, all what-clauses have been underlined.)
What you do is of no interest to me. [Comment: what-clause functioning as subject]
Accept what can’t be changed. [what-clause functioning as direct object of verb]
Be grateful for what you have. [what-clause functioning as object of preposition]
Later in the post, you’ll see many more examples of what-clause categorized under six different noun roles it can play in a sentence.
Since it’s a clause, what-clause contains its own subject-verb unit. It always starts with the subordinating conjunction what, which may or may not be the subject of the clause. For example, what is subject of the clause in only the second of the three sentences above.
Why use what-clause? [3 reasons]
What-clause is used in writing for following purposes.
1. What-clause makes writing tightly linked
Consider these two sentences:
What unexpected opportunities might come your way? You never know this.
They’re grammatically fine, but they’re loosely connected through the pronoun this. We can make the relationship tighter and clearer by replacing the vague referrer this with a what-clause.
You never know what unexpected opportunities might come your way.
The readers now don’t need to stop momentarily to connect a pronoun with the previous sentence. It’s smoother and clearer now. Another example, this time in subject position:
What did you do? This was beyond our wildest expectations.
What you did was beyond our wildest expectations.
Because what-clauses make sentences tightly linked and clear, they’re commonly used in proverbs, which have to convey a nugget of wisdom in few words. Examples:
What can’t be cured must be endured.
What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve over.
The truly rich are those who enjoy what they have.
Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.
A fool says what he knows, and a wise man knows what he says.
2. What-clause can be used to draw attention to a part of a sentence
The principle of end focus says that new or important information generally goes at the end of a clause or sentence, implying that end position in a clause or sentence usually draws attention.
What-clause when followed by be verb creates another point of focus in a clause or sentence. Example:
Word count doesn’t matter. What matters is how effective they’re.
Now, both What matters and how effective they’re draw attention. Contrast this with its less emphatic version, with end-focus on matters.
Word count doesn’t matter. The effectiveness of words matters.
The entire sentence What matters… they’re is called pseudo-cleft sentence. They’re common in spoken language but are used in written language as well. More examples of dual focus, separated by the be verb.
If your team fails to bag a project by a whisker, it’s as good as a failure. It doesn’t matter how close or distant the miss is. What matters is the result.
Testing kids in school multiple times won’t improve their performance in a particular subject. What’s required is an elaborate system to work on students’ weak areas.
We can achieve big things despite the background we come from. What’s needed is belief and action.
Some may call it justice meted by God, but what likely felled him was health complications arising out of constant stress of years of hide & seek with police.
3. What-clause is one of the tools to make sentences parallel
What-clause is an oft-used tool for writing parallel sentences, which lend rhythm and clarity to your writing and make the message sticky. That’s why they’re commonly used in speeches and popular sayings. Examples:
My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. John F. Kennedy [Verb + what-clause repeated]
Think not on what you lack as much as on what you have.
Since we cannot get what we like, let us like what we can get.
People are not satisfied with what they have. People are satisfied with what they don’t have.
Companies aren’t taken in by what you say in the interview or by what you write in the resume, but by what you can do with your skills.
See what type of adverb clauses can be reduced and what rules govern such reduction in this article.
What really matters is what we do and not what we say. [The first clause What really matters followed by be verb puts focus on the two parallel what-clauses.]
Get what you can and keep what you have; that’s the way to get rich.
A sentence sounds rhythmic even if one of the clauses is not a what-clause. Examples:
Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.
How they do it depends on what software they use.
Examples of what-clause
Here are examples of what-clause by the positions they hold in a sentence. Out of these, you’ll find noun clause most frequently in the object (of verb) position followed by subject and object (of preposition) positions.
What you learnt is probably obsolete now, so don’t limit your children to your own learning.
What you did was beyond our wildest expectations.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
What appears to be a product of superior intellectual power is often simply the result of great assiduity and meticulous attention to detail.
What goes around comes around.
2. Direct object of verb
Those who complain a lot get what they want.
Drunkenness reveals what soberness conceals.
If you do what you love, work will not seem work.
You never know what you can do until you try.
I rarely utilize free moments to absorb what’s happening around. [In this sentence, what-clause is the object of non-finite verb. Note that utilize is the main or finite verb.]
3. Indirect object of verb
What-clause appearing as indirect object of a verb is rare. Here is an example of what it looks like.
We will give what you proposed due consideration. [due consideration is direct object; what you proposed is indirect object.]
4. Object of preposition
A preposition always takes a noun as its object, and what-clause can play this role.
Don’t copy others to fit into what others want to see.
This is because he thinks that he already knows the best about what to do.
If you work only on regular projects, you won’t be challenged and hence not become better at what you do.
Degrees matter far less than what most think.
Our actions are influenced by what others may think or say about those actions.
5. Subject complement
Subject complement follows a linking verb and refers to the subject.
The answer isn’t what you think.
Life is what you make it.
The future of work isn’t what most think.
You are what you eat.
Social life and exits to alternate careers aren’t what they used to be before the financial crisis of 2008.
6. Object complement
What-clause appearing as object complement too is rare. Here is an example of what it looks like.
We nicknamed John what some may think to be offensive. [The noun clause gives further meaning to the direct object John.]