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Date: Mon, 2 Mar 2015 12:09:23 -0600
From: Jeffrey Goldberg <>
Subject: OT: Headless relatives [Was PHC status report]

This is completely off topic, but I will wrap up with a some pretense for bringing back around to the topic of this group.

> Yes, a misunderstanding: I am not saying I don't know what you're
> referring to. […] I am saying I don't know the details of
> it,

This from an instance of a peculiar ambiguity in English between two constructions, Embedded Questions and Headless Relatives.  Consider the following three sentences

Here is a sentence with an embedded question

(1) I wonder what Mary put on the sandwich.

Here is a sentence with a Headless Relative

(2) I ate what Mary put on the sandwich.

Things “what Mary put on the sandwich” in (2) are called “Headless Relatives” because they are relative clauses without the head noun.  That is we can think of them sort of like "the thing that Mary put on the sandwich”, but using “what” instead of “the thing”.

Most languages grammatically distinguish between these two constructions, often by using something that in English would kind of translate to “that which”. But in English we can be left with an ambiguity.

One way to see if you are dealing with an Embedded Question (EQ) or a Headless Relative (HR) is with WTF and “whatever. 


(3)  I wonder WTF Mary put on the sandwich
(4) *I wonder whatever Mary put on the sandwich

Sure, (3) is a bit odd sounding, but (4) in emphatically not English. Now let’s look at HRs Also “what the hell” works as well as “WTF” for those who would like some choice in their profanity.)

(5) *I ate WTF Mary put on the sandwich.
(6)  I ate whatever Mary put on the sandwich.

Also in HRs we can replace the “what” (or “who) with something like “the thing that” (or “the person that”), but it doesn’t work in EQs.

(7) *I wonder the thing that Mary put on the sandwich.
(8)  I ate the thing that Mary put on the sandwich.

Now to the ambiguity

(9) I don’t know who is speaking now.

In the EQ interpretation, this is roughly “I don’t know who it is”; while in the HR interpretation, this is roughly “the person who is speaking now is not someone that I personally know”.

We can tease these two meanings apart using WTF and whatever (well “whoever”)

(10) I don’t know who the hell is speaking now.
(11) I don’t know whoever is speaking now.
(12) I don’t know the person who is speaking now.

(10) forces the EQ reading, while (11) and (12) force the HR reading. (Yeah, (11) is a bit weird, but contrast it with (4).)

Any so

(13) I’m not familiar with what you are referring to.

is ambiguous in the same what that (9) is.

So my wrap up with a pretense of bringing things back to (meta-)topic: Language is hard folks. Try not to be generous in your interpretations of what people write.


Jeff (PhD Dropout in Linguistics) Goldberg

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