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I came across this sentence

During the summer, the tribes who lived in what is now Florida often slept in wooden frames with roofs but no walls.

This is from history textbook in the U.S. I think this "what" is a relative pronoun.Can I use "what" when I indicate the place? Is "where" appropriate in this sentence?

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During the summer, the tribes who lived in what is now Florida often slept in wooden frames with roofs but no walls.

No, 'where' would not be appropriate here. This is called a 'fused' relative construction where the antecedent and the relativised element are fused together instead of being expressed separately as in simpler relative constructions. Thus, the expression ‘what is now Florida’ is an NP whose head is fused with the first element in the relative clause. This means that 'what’ is both head of the NP and subject of the relative clause giving a meaning like that of the non-fused ‘the tribes who lived in the place which is now Florida'.

  • Thank you for your helpful answer. Can I use the word "what" in stead of "the place which"? – Yuuichi Tam Oct 22 '16 at 17:54
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    Yes, that's fine and normal. – BillJ Oct 22 '16 at 17:55
  • Thanks. I got it. And can I reword like "the tribes who lived where the place is now Florida"? – Yuuichi Tam Oct 22 '16 at 18:02
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    No, 'where' is not possible there, but you could say 'the tribes who lived where Florida is now', which has the same meaning. – BillJ Oct 22 '16 at 18:11
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    “where X is now” is common, but I wouldn't expect it for an extensive region with mostly natural boundaries (Florida the peninsula was already there before humans came). – Anton Sherwood Oct 22 '16 at 21:29
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Consider the sentence

What is the 27th state of the United States?

The answer is Florida. Yes, Florida is a place. But Florida is much more than a place. A State in the USA is a semiautonomous political unit. It has the power to form a government, tax its residents, formulate educational policies for its residents, say that it's compulsory for its residents to wear seat belts, draw up laws about self defense, and so forth.

In what is now Florida, 'Florida' is being thought of or conceptualized primarily as a State. Thus, native speakers use what here, and native speakers do not use where in a phrase such as '*where is now Florida'.

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