Is there a nuanced difference between the following noun phrases? Does what do something other than the does?

... the little money he had

... what little money he had

2 Answers 2


Before considering them just as noun phrases I want to look at them as complete sentences.

Doing so, only one of them is idiomatic.

For the sake of argument, I will turn them into emphatic sentences:

✘ The little money he had!
✔ What little money he had!

While the first is not technically wrong, it's not something that would normally be said outside of a larger context.

I think a comment you made is correct. The on its own normally acts as an article, something that introduces a noun as the subject. Even with the exclamation point, the first sentence sounds odd. On reading it, the inclination is to ask, "What about the little money he had?"

But in the second sentence, the use of what indicates that the sentence is about making an emphatic point that forms a complete thought that doesn't require further exposition.


A green tree.

This reads like a noun phrase rather than a complete sentence with a finished thought.

What a green tree.

This reads like a complete sentence, declaring how green the tree is.

Both of these could also be considered elliptically:

What a green tree (it is).

This makes sense.

A green tree (it is).

This also makes sense, but sounds unnatural. It's an elliptical version of Yoda-like speech that people aren't used to hearing. Written in full, we can make sense of it. But we don't normally assume something is elliptical when the full version is nonstandard.

Interestingly, the situation changes if a slight alteration is made:

✔ Oh, the little money he had!
✔ Oh, what little money he had!

The first sentence, although I would say it is still less common than the second, becomes something no longer as rare (and, hence, odd) when it's preceded by an interjection.

The use of the interjection in the first sentence signals the reader that what follows is not just a noun phrase but a functionally complete sentence—one whose entire meaning is emphatic declaration.

As noun phrases as part of a larger sentence, as you'd originally written your question, I don't think there is any essential difference between the two.

He spent the little money he had.
He spent what little money he had.

To me, both of these sentences mean the same thing.

However, although I read both as indicating that he had little money, I could add an additional interpretation to the second sentence: shock over the fact that he had little money in the first place.

  • It seems to me 'what' add a bit emphasis here. What about this sentence: "What little color there was in Black's face left it." VS "The little color there was in Black's face left it."?
    – dan
    Nov 29, 2018 at 0:16
  • @dan I would give a bit more weight to the what version. To me, It indicates that there was a surprisingly little amount that is now gone. The other version is more a simple statement of fact. But I think the difference is slight. Nov 29, 2018 at 3:30
  • All in all, can we say 'what' add an exclamatory effect compared with 'the'? He spent what little money he had. could imply he only had so little money and still he spent it. Does it sound reasonable?
    – dan
    Nov 29, 2018 at 3:43

I would use both, but I would follow the little money he had with something else.

For example:

The little money he had was so precious to him

Whereas what little money he had is just a phrase on its own and wouldn’t make sense if followed by another phrase.


What little money he had was so precious to him

So really it depends on the sentence. There is no difference in meaning.

  • What if we say "He lost ... the | what little money he had". Is there a difference in meaning if we choose what over the?
    – TimR
    Nov 28, 2018 at 12:52
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo There is no different in meaning in what and the. I edited my post to add that. Also the sentence in your comment would be correct.
    – user109564
    Nov 28, 2018 at 13:04
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo Is this not the answer you are looking for as you did not accept it?
    – user109564
    Nov 28, 2018 at 14:34
  • 1
    The second part of your answer is unclear. What little money he had was so precious to him makes perfect sense to me. Are you claiming it doesn't make sense? Or are you saying there is a different phrase with which it wouldn't make sense? If so, you're not providing it. On the contrary, What little money he had! is fine. But The little money he had! is not. Nov 28, 2018 at 14:40
  • 1
    No, because then it would become my own answer—especially if we have different opinions. You need to clarify what you mean. If you mean something different than what you wrote, then it can be edited. Nov 28, 2018 at 14:44

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