What is unusual about Angkor Wat?

What is the real subject of this sentence?


3 Answers 3


Consider the following sentences:

  • What about the party didn't you like?
  • Who from the film do you most want to meet?
  • What about the story amused you?
  • The news from Italy was the same.
  • The results from the exams were published.
  • That photograph of Mary doing a back-flip arrived.

These sentences all start with noun phrases. These particular noun phrases all have something in common. They all have a preposition phrase following the noun:

  • What [about the party] didn't you like?
  • Who [from the film] do you most want to meet?
  • What [about the story] amused you?
  • The news [from Italy] was the same.
  • The results [from the exams] were published.
  • That photograph [of Mary doing a back-flip] arrived.

Now these sentences are maybe a little bit clunky. Where these noun phrases are Subject, for instance, the preposition phrases mean that the head noun in the noun phrase is quite a long way away from the verb.

Lets look at the Subjects of these sentences:

  • What about the party didn't [you] like?
  • Who from the film do [you] most want to meet?
  • [What about the story] amused you?
  • [The news from Italy] was the same.
  • [The results from the exams] were published.
  • [That photograph of Mary doing a back-flip] arrived.

In the first two sentences, the noun phrases are Direct Objects of the verbs like and meet:

  • [What about the party] didn't you like?
  • [Who from the film] do you most want to meet?

Now one thing that tends to happen to preposition phrases inside noun phrases like these, is that they can break away from the noun phrase and appear at the end of the clause. This is sometimes called postposing. Sometimes writers call it extraposition from noun phrase movement. So in the following sentences part of the Subject noun phrase has broken off and moved to the end of the sentence:

  • What amused you [about the story]?
  • The news was the same [from Italy].
  • The results were published [from the exams].
  • The photograph arrived [of Mary doing a back-flip].

This doesn't only happen with Subject noun phrases. We can do it with the first two examples where the preposition phrases are part of a Direct Object:

  • What didn't you like [about the party]?
  • Who do you most want to meet [from the film]?

The Original Poster's example

What is unusual about Angkor Wat?

This sentence is a non-canonical version (one where the normal order of the phrases has been changed) of this sentence:

  • What about Angkor Wat is unusual?

The Subject of the sentence is in brackets below:

  • [What about Angkor Wat] is unusual?

In the Original Poster's version of the sentence, part of the Subject has been moved to the end of the sentence:

  • [What] is unusual [about Angkor Wat]?

Note: The Italy example is from this book here

  • 3
    I am baffled at your analysis that in "the news came from Italy" the highlighted portion is [part of] the subject. Would it be the same with "the news came yesterday"? Nov 5, 2015 at 16:14
  • @VictorBazarov Yes, I shouldn't have used the verb come there. Quite right. It's too ambiguous. Let me change change that ... Nov 5, 2015 at 16:24
  • "is" is intransitive. Nov 5, 2015 at 16:58

Syntactically every sentence has a complete subject and complete predicate.

The complete subject of the sentence in question is what about Angkor Wat.

  • It would be nice to see more examples with complete/incomplete subjects, predicates, etc. Do you propose to bundle objects into predicates, for instance? Nov 5, 2015 at 15:59
  • Ah, snap!! You just beat me to it! Nov 5, 2015 at 16:06
  • No, @Araucaria, I didn't. I just thought you wouldn't make an answer. Nov 5, 2015 at 16:51
  • I wasn't sure what the answer was ... :) Nov 5, 2015 at 20:07
  • 1
    I see. BTW: you dotted the i's and crossed the t's, @Araucaria.:) Nov 5, 2015 at 20:25


"is" is a form of "be", an intransitive verb, which only takes a subject. i.e. the "what" that "is" unusual about Angkor Wat.

Remember that "what" can also serve as an interrogative pronoun.

  • @Araucaria, Now if you say "That man came that you saw yesterday" what is "that you saw yesterday"? -- that is called a relative clause. Nov 5, 2015 at 14:54
  • 1
    If I answer that question as (1) Angkor Wat is unusual in that it faces west and it is inspired by 12th Century Hinduism. (2)Facing west and being inspired by 12th Century Hinduism are unusual about Angkor Wat", which is grammatically correct?
    – yethu
    Nov 5, 2015 at 15:07
  • @yethu, (1) is easier on the reader, and you can omit the second "it". In (2) I'd change "are unusual" to "is what's unusual". Nov 5, 2015 at 15:14
  • According to your comments, "Angkor Wat" is the subject of the question, isn't it?
    – yethu
    Nov 5, 2015 at 15:46
  • @yethu, maybe, maybe not. We're still waiting for a clear answer... :-) Nov 5, 2015 at 15:58

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