Somehow, the interior of Tithebarn House increased Robin’s unpleasant sensation of vertigo. No walls divided its vast interior. The first floor, which was reached by a steel and glass spiral staircase, was suspended on thick metal cables from the high ceiling. Chard’s huge double bed, which seemed to be of black leather, was visible, high above them, with what looked like a huge crucifix of barbed wire hanging over it on the brick wall. Robin dropped her gaze hastily, feeling sicker than ever.
(The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith)

There is a relative word, which, which is the subject in the clause; and a fused relative phrase with what. What I would like to know is if you put a pause between ‘what’ and ‘looked.’ If ‘what’ can be a equivalent to ‘the thing that,’ in which ‘that’ would be a subordinator not a relative word (CGEL,p.1056). Then a gap would be the subject of 'looked' in ‘with the thing (i) that __ (i) looked like a huge crucifix.’ So recently I pause whenever I happen to come across 'what' fused relative phrases. Is my view proper?

  • 1
    You cannot pause after what.
    – user230
    Oct 20, 2014 at 17:05
  • I consulted grammar.about.com/od/fh/g/Free-Relative-Clause.htm for the official term, 'definite free relative clause'. Therein lies a link to grammar.about.com/od/tz/g/Wh-clause.htm.
    – user8712
    Jan 16, 2015 at 2:34
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit The OP is using the terminology as used in the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL).
    – F.E.
    Jan 16, 2015 at 3:14

3 Answers 3


No, when speaking, you would not pause between "what looked". Just the opposite.

In the parsing rhythm, "what seemed" would be spoken almost as a single unit:

What seemed like a good idea turned out to be a very bad one.

{What seemed} {like a good idea} {largest pause} {turned out to be} {a very bad one}.

Chard's huge double bed ... was visible, high above them, with what looked like a huge crucifix...hanging over it.


This "what" means "something that".


The phrase "which seemed to be of black leather", is a parenthetical expression. http://www.grammar-once-and-for-all.com/punctuation/parenthetical-expressions/

The phrase could be removed without changing any meaning of the sentence.

Robin is the subject of the whole paragraph. Her name is assumed to be in the sentences. The "with what looked like" just means "with what looked like, to Robin, a huge..." or "with what looked like" is the same as "with something that looked like", where the word "what" refers to the unknown something hanging over the the bed.

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