(a) What other people think and say about us matters, a lot. (NYT)
(b) What matters most is your safety. (Merriam-Webster’s Learners’ 4.d)

(a) seems to have a fused relative, equivalent to “The thing that (i) other people think and say __ (i) about us matters, a lot.”
While there being no gap in (b), I would think that what-clause in (b) seems to be an interrogative clause; yet the dictionary says ‘what’ is equivalent to ‘the thing that.’ Is it, What matters most, a fused relative that has no gap? (Can this, a fused relative without any gaps, be possible at all?) Or is it a interrogative clause, for there's no gap?

  • 1
    Would it help you to note the the exact syntactic role of what is different in your two examples? If we recast #2 to the same form as #1, it becomes "Your safety matters most" (i.e. - there is no what). Conversely, if we recast #1 to the format of #2 we get "What matters a lot is what other people think and say about us". Does that perspective help you? Sep 28, 2014 at 11:55
  • @FumbleFingers Very helpful explanation there! You should do more syntax stuff on here. Sep 29, 2014 at 7:39

1 Answer 1


FumbleFingers put his finger on it: these are both fused relatives, but the initial term what plays different syntactic roles.

  • In ‘What other people think and say about us’ what is the Object of think and say. Analysis speaks of a ‘gap’ because the Object has been displaced to the front of the clause from its canonical position after the verb.

  • In ‘What matters most’ what is the Subject of matters. There is no ‘gap’ because the Subject already occupies its canonical position at the front of the clause.

You will find the same pattern in the analysis of bound relatives:

  • The horrible thingsi whichi other people say _i about us do matter.

  • Your safetyi, whichi is what matters most, has been assured.

There is, of course, no actual gap in the utterance: it is an artifact of the analysis being performed.


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