I am not clear about the syntactic analysis of the what-clauses in bold in the following b-sentences:

(1a) These words are weak determiners.

(1b) These words are what can be called weak determiners.

(2a) He is a true patriot.

(2b) He is what some consider a true patriot.

(3a) They are nothing more than a nuisance.

(3b) They are what she views as nothing more than a nuisance.

Given the a-sentences here, the what-clauses in bold in the b-sentences seem like they are modifying the following phrase. But that state of affairs is odd, because it suggests that these what-clauses, which look like free relative clauses, actually precede the expression they modify. Standard relative clauses in English always follow the expressions they modify, of course. So what's going on? Should the what-clauses in bold be viewed as preceding what they modify? If so, what might the tree analysis look like? Is the phenomenon addressed in the syntax literature? If yes, then where?

1 Answer 1


The what clauses include the terms that you say they modify.


These words are what can be called weak determiners.

the relative clause (with fused head) is what can be called weak determiners.

Replace what with something/somebody that and it will become clear.

  • You seem to be saying that such clauses are free relative clauses straight up. Is that right? I of course thought of that possibility, and perhaps that's correct, but intuition is telling me that something else is going on. I need a way to be sure. Any further insights? Apr 5, 2020 at 17:19
  • 1
    That's right, @TimOsborne (once I'd looked up "free relative clause" to find what one was).
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 5, 2020 at 23:05

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