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From NPR, SOURCE HERE

The British government evacuated its citizens from the resort town of Mombasa in response to what it said were reports of a planned attack there by Islamic extremists.

Is the sentence grammatically right? This sentence sounds right to me. But I couldn't figure out the construction of it. Because I find words after "in response to" is a sentence itself:

What it said were reports of a planned attack there by Islamic extremists.

Yes, it has every component a sentence should have, which is weird to me. Take another sentence:

I suggest you do something in response to what he says.

Of course, "what he says" itself isn't a sentence, which is different from sentence quoted. And I've searched many examples in my dictionary, I couldn't find a sentence like the original one from NPR. How to explain its grammar?

By the way, this sentence sounds grammatically right to me.:

The British government evacuated its citizens from the resort town of Mombasa in response to what it said about reports of a planned attack there by Islamic extremists.

  • This is what I call a good question. Think of what there as standing in for [some]thing which, the same as in "That's what I want". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 20 '14 at 16:52
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You are misreading the verb there, but your confusion is understandable.

It (the British government) did not say reports. (This would not be grammatical anyway).

Rather, it (the British government) said that what they responded to were reports.

An easier version is:

The British government evacuated its citizens from the resort town of Mombasa in response to reports of a planned attack there by Islamic extremists.

This means exactly the same, except for one detail. In the simpler version, we are told that there were reports of a planned attack. In the original version, the journalist makes clear that we are not sure about whether the communication the government received really were reports of a planned attack.

This seems a bit complicated, but the basic idea is that these kind of reports do not always arrive in a neat and clear way. So the government receives information, and the interpret that information as "reports that an attack is planned".

To include that the government is saying that these are reports of a planned attack, teh sentence becomes what you read.

Let's see if we can find a much simpler example:

I gave the boy a overdecorated birthday cake.
I gave the boy a birthday cake which was overdecorated.
I gave the boy a birthday cake which I thought was overdecorated.
I gave the boy a birthday cake which he said was overdecorated.

This simple sentence a bit more in line with the original:

I gave the boy what he said was an overdecorated birthday cake.

Here what he said was refers to clause "an overdecorated birthday cake".


Introducing about in the sentence changes the meaning! The version with about indicates that the government said something about the reports, and because of that, they took action.
But the original sentence does not state that the government said anything about the reports, the said that the reports were reports!

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  • These examples perfectly solved my question. Thank you! Excellent explanation. – Searene May 20 '14 at 9:15
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... in response to what it said were reports of ...

The piece in boldface here is a free relative clause or fused relative clause.

This has the same form as an ordinary relative clause, but it differs in two key respects:

  1. It may take any of the wh- or wh-..ever terms (including how) as its head, not just the relatives

    Let me show you how to do that.
    I'll give you whatever you want.
    Whether I go depends on when I get off.

  2. It is not ‘bound’ to an antecedent—a preceding NP (noun phrase) it modifies—but acts as a NP itself. It may play any role in a sentence which a bare noun can play (and some which ordinary nouns can’t play)

    SUBJECT: What you're asking for is impossible.
    DIRECT OBJECT: Give him what he wants.
    INDIRECT OBJECT: Give whoever shows up a ticket.
    SUBJECT COMPLEMENT: She's become what I was afraid she would.
    OBJECT COMPLEMENT: Paint the room whatever color she says.
    POSSESSIVE DETERMINER: It's whoever has the key's car.
    ADVERBIAL: Dig a hole where you want the post to go.

In your sentence the free relative acts as the object of the preposition to:

The British government evacuated its citizens ... in response to X.

X is defined, as you say, by a full clause. The constituent of that clause which represents the object of the preposition is recast as the wh- word which is moved to the head of the free relative clause.

It said X             were reports of a planned attack &c.
          ⇓
      What it said were reports of a planned attack &c.

The sentence might be paraphrased with a noun defined by a bound relative clause:

The British government evacuated its citizens ... in response to reports which it said were of a planned attack ...

But the phrase of a planned attack is, properly, a complement of reports—it’s not idiomatic to shift it into the predicate complement role. Using a free relative construction avoids that awkwardness.


This is why it is said to be ‘free’. Likewise, it is called ‘fused’ because it is a ‘relative’ clause which acts in effect as its own antecedent: it fuses the two roles in one constituent.

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Original:

  • [The British government][evacuated its citizens from the resort town of Mombasa]
    [in response to][what it said were reports of][a planned attack there by Islamic extremists.]

Let's remove as much as possible and rephrase a little:

  • [The government][evacuated its citizens]
    [because of][what it said were reports of][a planned attack.]

And even more:

  • [The government][evacuated its citizens]
    [because of][reports of][a planned attack.]
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