Etymology Usage

What’s with “what”?

Q: For a couple of years, I’ve been hearing an extra “what” in sentences like this: “She’s less aloof than (what) she was last year.” I wonder when this phenomenon started.

A: This particular use of “what” after “than” isn’t new. And it isn’t incorrect, either, just a bit wordy by modern standards.

The 20th-century grammarian George O. Curme has written that this “than what” construction usually shows up in speech, but was once common in writing.

In A Grammar of the English Language, Vol. II (1931), Curme says the “what” is sometimes inserted in informal speech to make up for a perceived absence—a dropped subject or adverb.

He begins by using a “what-less” sentence as an illustration: “He works harder than he did as a young man.” He then discusses cases in which a “what” is added “to fill the vacancy” that’s felt.

Sometimes, he writes, the “what” that’s inserted after “than” is the subject of a clause, as in “thicker than what was usual.” And sometimes it’s an adverb, as in “I laughed heartier then than what I do now.”

Here we’ve abbreviated the examples given by Curme, both of which come from 19th-century writers. The “what” in each of them would probably be considered unnecessary today and would be omitted.

In a sentence like the one you mention—“She’s less aloof than what she was last year”— “what” functions as an adverb.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says that as an adverb, “what” means “how much; in what respect; how.”

Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) use interrogative examples to illustrate the adverbial usage. AH: “What does it matter?” M-W: “what does he care?”

But the kind of sentence you’re noticing, with “what” used adverbially after “than,” is different. It isn’t a question, and the “what” is normally omitted in modern written usage.

As Curme says: “This what is a marked feature of current popular speech; ‘I’m more in earnest than what you are.’ ‘I hope you can walk quicker than what you eat.’ What is now never inserted here in the literary language.”

The 19th-century American grammarian Goold Brown noted that earlier writers often omitted the word “what” after “than.”

In A Grammar of English Grammars (1851), Brown makes his point by restoring the omitted “what” in two well-known quotations:

“He does nothing who endeavours to do more than [what] is allowed to humanity” (Samuel Johnson);

“My punishment is greater than [what] I can bear” (Cain in Genesis 4:13).

Today, nobody notices the omission of “what” in sentences like those, and speakers who insert it raise eyebrows.

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