Recently, I`ve stumbled upon an opinion by Slavoy Zizek, that contained a sentence that puzzled me. The sentence was the following:

"Our fundamental delusion today is not believing in what is only a fiction, to take fictions too seriously – on the contrary, it is not taking fictions seriously enough."

The part that confuses me is: "...not believing in what is only a fiction..." Why is the word order like this? Shouldn`t it be: "...not believing in what a fiction only is...." ?

Thanks for advance for all your feedback


The what at the beginning a free relative clause stands for some term missing from the remainder of the clause. We figure out its referent by analysing the syntax and finding the missing term.

  1. what is only a fiction

    If we ignore the what, we're left with is only a fiction. Obviously the missing term—let's call it X—is the subject of this clause:

    X is only a fiction

    So the author claims that our fundamental delusion is not that we believe in something which is only a fiction, but that we do not believe in fictions—we do not take fictions seriously enough.

  2. what only a fiction is

    If, again, we ignore the what, we're left with only a fiction is. In this case our missing term, X is obviously the predicate complement:

    Only a fiction is X.

    In this case we would be looking for something completely different: X would be some quality such as "poetic truth" or "imaginative vision" which can only be attributed to a fiction. . . . But that would make no sense in this context, where the author is denying the proposition that belief in X is a delusion.

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  • Maybe others might see things differently (and it might be much clearer as a spoken delivery), but I find the cited phrasing inherently "awkward". For me it's a "garden path" construction - I had to back up and reparse after assuming I was being told that our fundamental delusion was not doing X (i.e. - not doing X is delusional). Eventually it turns out that doing X is not our fundamental delusion (but by implication, doing X probably is delusional - it's just not the most delusional thing we do). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 10 '16 at 18:29
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    @FumbleFingers I agree: you can't tell whether not belongs to is or believing. However, isn't instead of is not would be unambiguous. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 10 '16 at 19:07
  • Now why didn't I think of that! I'm going to assume Slavoy Zizek didn't either because (a) he doesn't speak English very well, (b) his translator doesn't speak English very well, or (c) either/both of them are no better than me. (You've missed a great career in proofreading! :) – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 10 '16 at 19:14

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