What is going on grammatically with this embedded interrogative clause:

In court he was wearing a navy-blue polo shirt—possibly what he was taken out of his home wearing.

The reference is to an indicted person who was arrested by police at his home.

An analogous sentence without the passive in the embedded interrogative clause:

She was found wandering the streets in a yellow dress and matching hat decorated with yellow roses—possibly what she went to church wearing.

P.S. Here are some similar clauses:

That's the tree I broke my arm climbing when I was a kid.

This is the medicine I get dizzy taking.

  • 1
    Can you please cite where the two sentences were taken from?
    – user29952
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 19:29
  • I made the second one up; first one is pretty much a direct quote from a major network news outlet in the US.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 20:28
  • 1
    I don't find this unusual at all. In fact, it sounds perfectly natural to me and how I might write it if I were trying to express the same thing. So, in reading your question I'm still actually unclear about what you're asking. I'm even more confused by a comment from someone else here that says it's a "one-off 'ungrammatical' usage." Can you contrast it with an alternative construction for comparison? At the very least, to me anyway, it's idiomatic. Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 21:47
  • 2
    @Jason Bassford: The alternative structure would be: possibly what he was wearing when taken out of his home.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 23:04
  • 1
    @JasonBassford - can you provide evidence with real examples of this “common” and “grammatical” usage please.
    – user29952
    Commented Jan 26, 2019 at 5:16

1 Answer 1


I wouldn't use "interrogative" for this example, since it doesn't involve a question, but the clause after the dash refers to the shirt the man was wearing in court.

It means that "he was taken out of his home wearing the shirt." The pronoun "what" substitutes for "the shirt" and moves to the head of the clause directly after its antecedent. So the whole clause becomes "what he was taken out of his home wearing". They are just making a statement about the shirt.

"Possibly" refers to the whole clause, marking it as speculation.

  • Yes, I understand its meaning, but I'm curious about the syntax of the what-clause.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 16:57
  • 1
    How does this "what" differ from the typical pronoun function of "what"? I.e. as a pronoun standing-in for a noun-concept within regular sentence-structure. Examples: "I will do what you ask."; "She was wearing what used to be a white dress."; "I mistook the alien for what would have to be the largest tarantula ever to walk on planet Earth." In this case, the meaning would be "In court he was wearing a navy-blue polo shirt—possibly [the shirt] he was taken out of his home wearing."
    – Lorel C.
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 19:59

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .