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Sitting down at Strike’s invitation, Bristow looked round the tatty office in what Strike was afraid was disappointment. The prospective client seemed nervous in the guilty way that Strike had come to associate with suspicious husbands, yet a faint air of authority clung to him, conveyed mainly by the obvious expense of his suit. Strike wondered how Bristow had found him. It was hard to get word-of-mouth business when your only client (as she regularly sobbed down the telephone) had no friends. (The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith)

The preposition, in, and the fused relative, what, in the highlighted sentence makes me puzzled. It seems to me that ‘in what [Strike was afraid] was disappointment’ means ‘in the way whose looking around his office room disappointed, to Strike, and of that Strike was afraid. What does it mean?

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It may be clearer when you parse the sentence like this:

Bristow looked round the tatty office in [what Strike was afraid was] disappointment.

So Bristow looked arround in disappointment. At least, Strike is afraid that the emotion he saw was disappointment.

To clear up some confusion about afraid: it needs no proposition.

I'm afraid the train is late.

These sentences mean almost the same as the original:

Bristow looked round the tatty office in [what Strike thought was] disappointment.
Bristow looked round the tatty office in [what Strike imagined was] disappointment.
Bristow looked round the tatty office in [what Strike saw was] disappointment.
Bristow looked round the tatty office in [what Strike feared was] disappointment.
Bristow looked round the tatty office in [what Strike was thinking was] disappointment.
Bristow looked round the tatty office in [what Strike was imagining was] disappointment.

Another example:

She started crying what I hoped were tears of happiness.

  • In “She started crying what I hoped were tears of happiness”, ‘what’ is the complement of ‘hoped’. Likewise, in “the tatty office in what Strike was afraid was disappointment”, what is complement of ‘afraid’. Then where is the preposition ‘of’ that ‘afraid’ demands for its complement? Can ‘what’ replace the role of clause, not the complement of ‘of’? – Listenever Aug 12 '14 at 11:39
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    @Listenever Afraid needs no of. Why would it? I'm afraid you are misinformed ;) – oerkelens Aug 12 '14 at 12:00
  • True, but not in all cases. I'm afraid of spiders ;) – Maulik V Aug 12 '14 at 12:50
  • @MaulikV — I never said that it never needs of. But Listenever seemed under the impression it always needed an of. – oerkelens Aug 12 '14 at 12:55
  • @oerkelens, Okay, I got it. ‘the tatty office in what Strike was afraid [that] _ was disappointment’ : The subject of ‘was’ is shifted forward to make complement of ‘in’ and there’s a gap before ‘was’. Is it right? – Listenever Aug 12 '14 at 13:02
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Sitting down at Strike’s invitation, Bristow looked round the tatty office in what Strike was afraid was disappointment.

The sentence means:

Sitting down at Strike’s invitation, Bristow looked round the tatty office in a certain mood. Strike was afraid that this certain mood was disappointment.

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