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I saw this complex sentence in the CGEL Quirk et al.

What surprises me is that they are fond of snakes and lizards.

In this sentence, the subject is the wh-clause and the predicative is that-clause. Both of them are dependent clauses(subordinate clauses). why is this sentence without a main clause (independent clause) still correct?

Remark: BillJ's interpretation is correct. Here is a link of convincing evidence.

Nordquist, Richard. "Free (Nominal) Relative Clause." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/free-nominal-relative-clause-1690808.

3 Answers 3

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[What surprises me] is that they are fond of snakes and lizards.

The main clause is the whole sentence in a 'fused' relative construction.

The subject "what surprises me", is not a clause but a noun phrase in which the single word "what" combines, or 'fuses', the functions of head of the NP and relativised element. It has a meaning equivalent to the non-fused The thing that surprises me is that they are fond of snakes and lizards.

The declarative content clause that they are fond of snakes and lizards is functioning as complement of the verb "is".

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  • Here arises another problem. In the CGEL Quirk et al, 15.8 / Page 1057, “ what surprises me” is actually a nominal relative clause and " what" functions as the subject. There are many examples similar to this structure. I cite another two from CGEL, " What happened upset him" , " What were left behind were five empty bottles. "
    – user421993
    Aug 16, 2023 at 17:05
  • It is true that " What " in the norminal relative clause can be paraphrased into " the thing/s that" . For example, " (The things that) were left behind were five empty bottles. " In my orginal example, " what surprises me" is not a noun phrase, but a special clause with similar function as the NP.
    – user421993
    Aug 16, 2023 at 17:14
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    @user421993 That was Quirk et al's not very transparent term for Huddleston & Pullum's term 'fused relative'.
    – BillJ
    Aug 16, 2023 at 17:16
  • Undoubtedly, " What surprises me" functions as the subject of the overall sentence and " that they are fond of snakes and lizards" as the predication. As the subject and predication are two subordinate clauses, where is the main clause?
    – user421993
    Aug 16, 2023 at 17:31
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    Further evidence comes from subject-verb agreement: Compare (a) "What money she has is in the bank". (b) "What books she has are in the attic". The verbs here agree with the fused relatives in subject position. The crucial point is that the "are" in (b) shows that "what books" is plural, like the uncontroversial NP "all the books that she has". Clauses functioning as subject, by contrast, always belong to the default 3rd person singular category: "That she has so many friends is rather surprising"
    – BillJ
    Aug 16, 2023 at 17:48
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The main clause is the one headed by the verb "is", so the bracketing is:

(What surprises me) is (that they are fond of snakes and lizards).

Both the subject and its complement are content clauses, but the main clause is a simple SVC structure.

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    Sorry to disagree, but the expression "what surprises me" is not a clause but an NP in a fused relative construction where head of the NP and the relativised element are combined, or fused, into the single word "what", which means "that which".
    – BillJ
    Aug 16, 2023 at 11:03
  • @BillJ can't "what surprises me" be considered a relative clause?
    – minseong
    Aug 16, 2023 at 16:17
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    @theonlygusti No because it's actually a noun phrase in a fused relative construction. In fused relatives the head of an NP fuses with the relativised element in a relative clause instead of being expressed separately as in a simpler construction. In the OP's example, "what" is thus head of the NP and subject of "surprises" in the relative clause, giving a meaning like that of the non-fused "That which surprises me is that they are fond of snakes and lizards".
    – BillJ
    Aug 16, 2023 at 17:03
  • @BillJ, Yes, it is true that " what surprises me" can be rephrased into " that which surprises me" . Apparently , it is a clause, not a NP. Also obviously, the predication is a clause ( declarative content clause).
    – user421993
    Aug 16, 2023 at 17:40
  • I also disagree with Mr. James K. The main clause is not a simple SVC; at least, the subject is quite a complicated construction. I just found more information on Noun Phrases from British Council, which have a large range of functions , especially when they have multiple postmodifiers.
    – user421993
    Aug 16, 2023 at 19:25
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The overall sentence structure is called a "predicate nominative" because the verb of the main clause is "is". Thus, this structure makes the predicate a restatement of the subject. For ex: "Biden is the President."

"What surprises me" is an independent noun clause whose subject is the relative pronoun, "what", and this entire noun clause is the subject of the sentence. The antecedent of "what" is stated later. Normally, a pronoun's antecedent precedes the pronoun itself. The antecedent of "what" is "that they are fond of snakes and lizards".

"Is" is the verb of the main clause.

"That they are fond of snakes and lizards" is an independent noun clause and the predicate of the main clause, as well as the antecedent of "what". "That" is a subordinating conjunction and introduces the second noun clause. "They" is the subject of this second noun clause. "Are" is the primary verb of this 2nd clause. "Fond" is an adjective that modifies "they" making the 2nd clause's structure a predicate adjective. "Of" is a preposition. "Snakes and lizards" is the (compound) object of the prepositional phrase, "of snakes and lizards" which all together is an adverb that modifies "fond".

This overall sentence structure is not good. This sentence can more simply be written, with the exact same meaning, as:

"That they are fond of snakes and lizards surprises me."

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    Your assessment that the sentence structure is not good is subjective, of course. Your suggested rewrite has a very different focus, and reads quite awkwardly. Aug 16, 2023 at 7:49
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    If I were to rewrite, I'd go for "I'm surprised that they are fond of snakes and lizards", but this does change the focus of the sentence, so there may be reasons for the "what surprises me..."
    – James K
    Aug 16, 2023 at 7:56
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    @JamesK yes, that's a much better rewrite. "It surprises me that ..." would work too IMO. Aug 16, 2023 at 10:56
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    -1 for a wrong analysis. "What surprises me" is not a clause but an NP in a fused relative construction where the head of the NP and the relativised element are combined, or fused, into the single word "what" meaning "that which".
    – BillJ
    Aug 16, 2023 at 11:07
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    -1 for claiming that your rewrite has the exact same meaning.
    – TonyK
    Aug 16, 2023 at 11:26

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