Q: What’s up with “what” in the following sentence? “What with two jobs, enormous debt and an unhappy marriage, he just could not cope.” And what part of speech does it play here?
A: What with one thing and another, we haven’t written about this age-old use of “what.” So what better time?
This construction has a folksy, contemporary sound, but it’s neither. It’s been around since the Middle Ages and appears in the most elevated writing.
Here “what” is used to introduce an adverbial phrase that starts with a preposition, and the preposition is generally “with.”
The resulting “what with,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, implies “in consequence of, on account of, as a result of,” or “in view of, considering (one thing and another).”
This use of “what” has been around since the 1100s, the OED says, although in the very earliest examples the preposition was “for,” as in this quotation from the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175), a collection of Old English sermons:
“Alle we beoð in monifald wawe ine þisse wreche liue, hwat for ure eldere werkes, hwat for ure aȝene gultes” (“We are all in manifold woe in this wretched life, what for our elders’ deeds, what for our own guilts”). We’ve expanded the citation.
The “what with” construction began showing up in English writing in the 15th century, the OED says.
The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1476 letter that John Paston wrote from Calais to his family back home in Norfolk: “I ame some-whatt crased [ill], whatwyth the see [sea] and what wythe thys dyet [diet] heere.”
In earlier uses, the “what with” is repeated with each phrase, but later it appears only once, at the head of a series. Here are a few more examples:
“What with the war; what with the sweat, what with the gallowes, and what with pouerty, I am Custom-shrunke.” (From Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, possibly written in 1603 or ’04.)
“Alas the Church of England! What with Popery on one Hand, and Schismaticks on the other; how has she been Crucify’d between two Thieves.” (From Daniel Defoe’s pamphlet The Shortest-Way With the Dissenters, 1702.)
“So that what with one thing and another, when Mustapha came to review them afterwards … he found he had lost 40000 Men.” (From David Jones’s A Compleat History of the Turks, 1718.)
“What with hunting, fishing, canoe-making, and bad weather, the progress of the august travellers was so slow.” (From Francis Parkman’s The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867.)
So you can see that “what with” has been a useful and natural part of English down through the centuries.
As for the role played by “what,” the OED lists it as “adv. or conj.”
But we like the explanation in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). M-W calls this “what” an adverb introducing a prepositional phrase that “expresses cause and usually has more than one object.”