Thanks to user oerkelens, I now understand the meaning of my quote, so ask NOT about it here. Yet this construct still mystifies and sounds wrong to me, so I'd like to decompose it further to naturalise it. Also, I only realised now that a worsening factor is 'there is'; I can endure the first three rewrites here:

[a man's gotta do (something)) -> What [a man's gotta do]
[(something) needs to be said] -> What [needs to be said]
[(some) vegetables were left] -> What [vegetables were left]
4. [there is evidence to believe (something)] -> What [there is evidence to believe]
5. [there is a reason to do (something)] -> What [there is a reason to do]

Please explain and show all steps, thought processes behind the arrows in 4 and 5? How does the left-hand side become the right-hand side?

  • You take the something, replace it by what to make it a question, and you place the what in front. That is exactly the same as in the first sentence. Three steps, and I shy away from calling anything I did as "thought processes"... it's quite straightforward. Can you elaborate on which of the three steps is causing you problems?
    – oerkelens
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 7:26
  • @oerkelens Thank you! That helps, but it still just sounds wrong and strange? I admit that I can't pinpoint the problem directly, but how can I overcome the juxtaxposition of What + there is/are ...? Please advise me if you want me to elaborate further, which I'm happy to do.
    – user8712
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 7:32
  • "It sounds wrong and strange", while the sentence, to any native speaker sounds right and natural, is a very difficult problem to overcome form the native speaker's point of view... if I tell you that adding an -s to a verb for the third person sounds wrong and strange, how would you explain to me that is is correct? I doubt there is more to it than "it's just the way it is." I'll give it a try anyhow :)
    – oerkelens
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 7:38

2 Answers 2


The presence of there may sound wrong and strange, but it is correct and natural.

Even more important, it is essential in the sentence, because without it, what would refer to something else altogether!

Let's take an example situation:

I do this boring job because I need the money.

Obviously, there is a reason to do this boring job.

If I want to ask about a reason to do this boring job, I can ask:

What is a reason to do this boring job? I need the money.

What refers clearly to the reason here, and I'll assume you'll have little problem with the formation of that question.

Now, let's say that we know the reason, but we want to clarify what the reason logically entails: doing the job.

What there is a reason to do is this boring job.

Here, what refers to this boring job, not to the reason!

I can even leave out this boring job, and I could tell you that there are things I do for a reason (like that job), and there are things to do without an obvious reason, which I may enjoy much more:

What there is a reason to do is useful, but terribly boring.

To repeat the exercise with your original sentence: there is evidence to believe something. Let's say that you found a knife in my hand while I'm standing next to a dead rabbit in pieces in my kitchen.

It is likely I cut up the rabbit, but there is no evidence that the rabbit was alive when entering my kitchen — the likely assumption is that I bought it good and dead from a butcher!

If we talk about the evidence — my location and my holding a knife — we simply refer to that as:

The fact I was holding the knife is evidence to believe (I cut up the rabbit).
What is evidence to believe (I cut up the rabbit) is that I was holding a knife.

However, if you are talking about me cutting up the rabbit, what should not refer to the evidence!

There is evidence to believe I cut up the rabbit.
What there is evidence to believe is that I cut up the rabbit.

  • I'll go with all this. Let me know if you're not convinced about the switch from dead and well to good and dead, but assume that's the idiom you had in mind. Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 14:32
  • @FumbleFingers: I wasn't even consciously aiming at anything (another argument for my innocence in the case of the dead rabbit!) but indeed your version sounds better than mine. I will contact you for proofreading if I ever have to defend myself in writing against allegations of leporicide!
    – oerkelens
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 14:42
  • oic. Well your English is so good in general I just assumed you knew that (rather odd, now I come to think of it) idiomatic usage, but had slightly misremembered it. Are you saying that's not the case (and that there's not some close equivalent idiom in your native language)? Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 14:48
  • I speak more English than any other language and I have been doing so for the last ten years or so - I have no idea sometimes where my mix-ups come from though. This one I cannot identify - it may be Dutch, Greek, or simply brainfart in origin :P
    – oerkelens
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 15:08
  • I've only got indifferent French to add to my native English, but sometimes even I have been called out for inadvertant "Franglais". I imagine it must get much worse if you have several languages all swimming around in your Broca's and Wernicke's areas Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 16:25
  1. [a man's gotta do (X) ----------------> What [a man's gotta do ___ ]
  2. [(X) needs to be said] ---------------> [What needs to be said]
  3. [there is evidence to believe (X)] --> What [there is evidence to believe ___ ]
  4. [there is a reason to do (X)] --------> What [there is a reason to do ___ ]

The phrases on the right are Noun Phrases. This means that they function in the sentence like a noun, usually as the Subject or Object of the sentence.

In the phrases on the right, the word what represents (X) from the examples on the left. There's a gap in the clause on the right, which is where the (what/X) moved from. In examples (3, 4) we could reconstruct the phrases so:

  • What [there is reason to believe (it)]
  • What [there is a reason to do (it) ]

We can then put these phrases into full sentences:

  • 3' [What there is reason to believe ___ ] is that you've been eating all the pies.

  • 4' [What there is a reason to do ___ ] is exactly what I shall do.

If this is still difficult to parse, this may help you: this particular word what means something like the thing which. In these clauses the thing is the element that is missing from the gap. So we understand that whole clause as being that missing thing.

Sentence 3' then means:

  • The thing [which there is reason to believe [this thing]] is that you've been eating all the pies'.

Senetence 4' means:

  • The thing [which there is reason to do [this thing]] is exactly what I shall do.

Hope this helps!

  • The trickier issue is deciding on what to do with the semantic-like terms, e.g. "true subject", "dislocated subject", "extraposed subject"--for a layman may mistakenly think that those are kinds of a grammatical subject, when we know that they really aren't. Of course, as to the real semantic terms, such as "agent", "patient", and "instrument", I use regular font and text. Though, if a post was to contrast semantic terms with syntactic terms, then I could see a writer choosing to put all the semantic terms in italics so as to help the reader learn the difference between semantics and syntax.
    – F.E.
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 19:39
  • @F.E. I agree. And if you want to really make things difficult, try explaining H&P's description of sentences like John believes the police to have arrested the thief in terms of subjects/objects/clauses ... What exactly is the police in relation to arrested there? Are we going to introduce subjectless clauses into the grammar .... ? (shrugs) ... Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 20:02
  • ... Inescapable problem at times things like semantic subject but if you reckon you could do it, I'd love to post that question. I'll then take your lead with my over-due answers for a couple of existential posts that I'm still working on. Am meant to be PhDing madly right now. But when I get stuck seem to end up on here ... Even then try to just write teeny little posts, but never works out like that ... Let me know if you think you'd like to do that post. It is one of the huge arguments in modern English grammar after all ... :) Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 20:19
  • Actually, I thought H&P did a pretty decent job in keeping the syntax and the semantics separate when discussing that issue. One of the thingies in that issue is that, sometimes, it seems that an element can behave syntactically as the object of the matrix clause while at the same time it is used to hold a semantic argument belonging to an embedded clause. That is, a semantic argument of an embedded clause is aligned with the object of the matrix clause. (Which is why the term "subject" ought to be used precisely.) -- Of course, there are a lot of other thingies in there too. :)
    – F.E.
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 20:31
  • 1
    @F.E. Sorry, cos I'm benefitting from you're insights a lot, but gotta go -or get murdered by the GF! Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 20:53

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