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"China has opened the door to imports of rice from the United States for the first time ever in what analysts took to signal a warming of relations between the world's two biggest economies after a frosty year marked by tensions and tit-for-tat tariffs."

What does the word "in what" refer to?

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  • Could you please add more detail to the question explaining why you find it difficult or confusing?
    – Andrew
    Jan 4, 2019 at 15:51
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    Please also tell us where the sentence came from. This question is a good example of how to ask about the meaning of a sentence that is confusing you.
    – J.R.
    Jan 4, 2019 at 16:03
  • In what refers to China opening the door to imports of rice flower from the United States. You could rephrase the sentence using from the United States, which for the first time ever analysts took to signal. Jan 4, 2019 at 17:03
  • what is a placeholder there which might be paraphrased roughly as "an action". It refers to the action of "opening the door to imports of rice....". China has opened the door to imports of rice from the US for the first time ever, in [an action which] analysts took to signal a warming of relations... The sentence could be rephrased "... for the first time ever, which analysts took as a signal of warming relations..." Jan 4, 2019 at 17:45
  • So in what it is rather like a relative pronoun for the action of the verb "has opened the door...", which is not a noun, of course, but a verb. It is a way of referring to the thing that China has done by way of an embedded interrogative clause, while offering an object for analysts took. Jan 4, 2019 at 17:49

2 Answers 2

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The wording "in what" is not a simple unit in this sentence. 

The model sentence includes the opinion of unidentified analysts.  Let's look at a version of this sentence that ignores the analysts and simply presents their opinion as fact:

China has opened the door to imports of rice from the United States for the first time ever in a warming of relations between the world's two biggest economies after a frosty year marked by tensions and tit-for-tat tariffs.

On second thought, this version goes a step too far.  It's not the analysts presented opinion that relations have warmed.  Rather, the opinion is that this event shows that relations will (or may) become warmer. 

China has opened the door to imports of rice from the United States for the first time ever in [an event that signals] a warming of relations between the world's two biggest economies after a frosty year marked by tensions and tit-for-tat tariffs.

From here, it's easy enough to explicitly mark that this is opinion rather than fact:

China has opened the door to imports of rice from the United States for the first time ever in [an event taken to signal] a warming of relations between the world's two biggest economies after a frosty year marked by tensions and tit-for-tat tariffs.

And, finally, we can introduce who it is that holds this opinion, as well as placing this statement of opinion in the past tense:

China has opened the door to imports of rice from the United States for the first time ever in [what analysts took to signal] a warming of relations between the world's two biggest economies after a frosty year marked by tensions and tit-for-tat tariffs.

Analysts took something to signal a warming of relations. The phrasing "what analysts took to signal a warming of relations. . ." represents that something. Whatever that something is (ideas like event, change, and circumstances all seem to fit) is the object of the preposition "in".

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In the sentence, in what refers to the subject just discussed.

In other words, in what refers back to China has opened the door to imports of rice from the United States for the first time ever.


The sentence can be rephrased in a way that will express something essentially the same, or the same enough to convey the idea:

China has opened the door to imports of rice from the United States for the first time ever, which analysts took to signal a warming of relations between the world's two biggest economies after a frosty year marked by tensions and tit-for-tat tariffs.


You can also consider the following:

What did she do? She ran back into the burning house.
What would you call that? A moment of heroism.

She ran back into the burning house in what was a moment of heroism.
She ran back into the house. (Her doing that) was a moment of heroism.

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