Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: what (3).

what (3). Today: Plural “what” Uses. Part A: In a Noun Clause Followed by a Plural Predicate. In this construction, “what” means “the things that” — e.g.: “What the judge principally wants to hear are the relevant cases.” Glanville Williams, Learning the Law 163 (11th ed. 1982). Although some would say that the following sentence is just as acceptable as the preceding one, it probably violates idiom in changing the set phrase “what matters most”: “What matter [read ‘What matters’] most in the exercise of focusing a collection are a lively imagination and an open mind.” Nicholas A. Basbanes, “Preserving the Creative Past,” Biblio, May 1997, at 8. Part B: Undetermined “what” Followed by a Plural Predicate. In many contexts, “what” is the object in a noun clause; when that is so, the plural is three times as frequent as the singular. The “what” is hard to resolve into phrases such as “things that.” E.g.: o “Many places in Ohio, including Guernsey County, have what are considered naturally elevated levels of radon.” Mike Lafferty, “Cleanup of Radioactive Slag Is Nearly Complete,” Columbus Dispatch, 25 Aug. 1997, at C1. o “Student evaluations instead should focus on what are called ‘portfolio assessments’ within the classroom.” John Mooney, “N.J. Standard Testing Faulted,” Record (N.J.), 24 Sept. 1997, at A2. Part C: Plural “what” from Inverted “that”-Clause. Sometimes “what” signals an inverted relative clause, and when the inverted phrase has a plural subject, the construction “what have” (or “what are,” etc.) is called for — e.g.: “Japan and South Korea yesterday opened the way for an improvement in what have been frosty relations by announcing they will hold a summit next week.” William Dawkins & John Burton, “S. Korea, Japan Aim to Defrost Relations Summit,” Fin. Times, 13 June 1996, at 12. The “what”-clause is resolvable into “relations that have been frosty,” but with the inversion the “that” is changed to “what.” For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “A poem is never a put-up job so to speak. It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” Robert Frost, The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer 256 (Louis Untermeyer ed., 1963). ====================
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