Friday, June 13, 2008

What as an object

I saw this word combination in a paragraph I was reading:

"to know what is the meaning."

This is not a correct structure at least in the sentence was used in, which unfortunately I did not record. The phrasing here is not correct because "what" is not the subject of the clause after "to know". "What" is the object in this clause.

In other words, the clause has a subject, "the meaning", so it would be structured as "the meaning is what". In English, we can put the object question word in front of the subject when putting it in a relative clause. Consequently, we write
what[object] the meaning [subject] is [verb].

If we put these same words in an independent clause, they would either form a sentence, "the meaning is what" that would probably be concluded with a question mark, as in, "The meaning is what?" This particular sentence would probably express surprise with an emphasis on what.
Another way we can use these words in a simple sentence is as "What is the meaning?" which is structured like other "what" questions such as "What is your name?" or "What is the address?" in which the object comes before the verb.
To sum up, in the construction from the student's paper, the phrasing is incorrect because the object, "what", is being used in the subject place when it is not the subject.

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