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"If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error." source: On Liberty By John Stuart Mill

If the phrase "the clearer ... with error" is the object for the verb lose, then, what does the highlighted phrase served as? Could you help me clarify it? Thank you always.

  • "What is almost as great a benefit" is a noun phrase in a fused relative construction, cf. "That which is almost ...". What follows looks like an appositive NP modifying "benefit", though being 150 years or so old, the style doesn't lend itself to simple parsing. – BillJ Feb 13 '18 at 14:14
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what is a relative pronoun and the text in brackets is a non-defining relative clause. Its role in the sentence is to provide additional (but not essential) information about the object "the clearer ... with error."

  • Thank you so much for your kind answer. Your answer really helped me understand the sentence. Because of your help, I got to know how to interpret this kind of clause like the what phrase above. – DeborahJeong Feb 13 '18 at 18:42
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"If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

what can be paraphrased as "something which" or "that which".

... they lose {something which} is almost as great a benefit [as being able to exchange error for truth]

namely...

... they lose ... the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth

You might say that what stands in, like a placeholder, for the actual object of lose, "the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth". This is an oratorical strategy, something like a little drum roll, to create a bit of rhetorical suspense. The actual noun-phrase is delayed.

Compare:

And now I'd like to introduce someone, a person who has been most important for our company's success this year, Joe Average.

And now we'd like to tell you what we have been keeping secret all these years, the planet which these extraterrestrials call home.

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