Skip to Content

Is It Okay to Say “What”?

If you’ve studied or spoken the English language at all, you’ll probably understand what we’re talking about here. In fact, the topic might not be what you expect at all. But what does every sentence in this paragraph have in common? They all include the word “what”!

It is not okay to say what as a replacement term for asking someone to repeat what they just said while in a formal setting. While it is acceptable informally, it’s better to say “could you repeat what you just said?” It is okay to say “what” as a question word, a word for starting a dependent noun clause, and even as a pronoun in both formal and informal settings. “What!?” can also be an interjection, but should not be used in this manner formally. Be aware that it can come across as rude depending on your tone.

“What” is a versatile word with many functions, which might have you asking, “What!? It’s just one word! What does it all mean?” If that’s the case, then you can already see how many different ways there are to use “what.”

What Does “What” Mean?

“What” expresses an unknown person, place, object, or idea when used at the most basic level. “What” has a lot of different meanings and usages with which the user should also be aware.

“What” Can Be a Question Word

Perhaps the most common and recognizable way we can use “what” is at the beginning of a question. For example, you can use “what” to ask about an unknown noun. Furthermore, we can use “what” to ask about either the subject or the object of the verb in the question (source).

Take a look at these examples:

Q: What will you eat for dinner?

A: I will eat some tomato soup and a cheese sandwich.

In this example, the question word “what” asks about the object of the verb, “will eat.” The subject of the sentence example is “you,” and the question asks about the object you will eat — in this case, some soup and a sandwich.

Q: What is your favorite holiday?

A: Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

In this example, the question word “what” asks about the subject of the verb, “to be.” Here, we don’t know the subject, but we do know the object of the verb — “your favorite holiday.” So, we can use “what” to find out the subject.

“What” is one of many “Wh-words” that function as question words, like “who,” “when,” “where,” and “why.” For more on wh-words, check out “Whichever or Whatever: Understanding Differences and Usage.”

Image by Geralt via Pixabay

“What” Can Start a Dependent Noun Clause

Hopefully, you’re getting a good sense of what we can do with the word “what.” In the previous sentence, you can even see an example of how we can use “what” to start a dependent noun clause.

Remember, a dependent noun clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb that describes one idea; therefore, this whole group of words acts as one noun in the sentence (source). So, for example, we can use the word “what” to start a noun clause that serves as the object of a sentence.

Take a look at this example:

Q: Did you hear what the professor said about the assignment?

A: No, I couldn’t hear what she said. There was so much clamor in the room.

In this example, you can see how “what” starts the dependent noun clause. In the question, the subject is “you,” and the main verb is “hear.” But what is the speaker asking about? What did the speaker expect the listener to hear?

The speaker wants to know about the professor’s words about the assignment. So that whole idea — “what the professor said about the assignment” — is one idea that serves as the object of this sentence.

The same thing is true for the answer sentence. The dependent noun clause, “what she said,” describes the object of the sentence, where “I” is the subject and “couldn’t hear” is the verb. So, once again, “what” starts the noun clause that serves as the object in this sentence. 

“What” Can Be a Pronoun

Sometimes, we can use the word “what” as a pronoun, especially when the thing that we are referring to is unknown to us. The most popular way we can use “what” as a pronoun is at the beginning of a question when we’re asking about the verb’s subject.

For example, when you ask, “What is your favorite color?” you ask about the subject of the sentence. You already know the verb “is” and the object “your favorite color.” But we still do not know the subject. In this case, the question word “what” is also a pronoun that represents an unknown noun.

“What” Can Be an Interjection

Again, the word “what” has many different uses in the English language. One of the most straightforward ways we can use “what” is as an interjection. Sometimes, it comes with both a question mark and an exclamation point for emphasis.

Even though this is one of the easiest ways to use “what” grammatically, there are some contextual or situational limits to how you should use “What!?” as an interjection. It might seem rude in some places and to some people, and we’ll address that issue later on in the article.

For more on different ways to use “what” in different contexts, check out our article “What or Which: Differences and Usage.”

Is It Rude to Say “What”?

The functions of “what” are so various because it serves multiple roles as many other parts of speech. However, if you’re using just “What?” as an interjection, it might come across as rude.

When saying what, the potential for rudeness is especially present if you’re talking to someone of an older generation or of a higher status in the workplace. For instance, you should think twice before using the interjection “What?” with your grandmother or boss. However, in most informal settings, it isn’t rude at all.

How Do You Use “What”?

There are a lot of different ways to use “what,” including as a question word, at the beginning of a dependent noun clause, as a pronoun, and as an interjection. Let’s review some of the ways to use “what” in English. 

Image by NDE via Pixabay.

When Can You Use “What”?

As an interjection, you can use “What!?” in informal settings. Usually, this interjection shows surprise and/or signals that you didn’t quite understand what the speaker said. However, if you’re in a formal or professional setting, you shouldn’t use “What!?” as an interjection. 

As an indicator for a dependent noun clause, we usually use “what” when we’re referring to the object of the sentence. Using “what” to start a noun clause that defines the subject of a sentence is very rare these days, although this structure is popular in older examples of English. 

In What Context Can You Use “What”?

There are also a lot of different contexts where you can use “what,” and how you use it will depend on what part of speech you need to use (source).

For instance, sometimes you’ll use “what” as a question word, sometimes you’ll use it to start a dependent noun clause, sometimes you’ll use it as a pronoun, and sometimes you’ll use it as an interjection. You can use “what” in all of these different contexts.

Using “What” in a Full Sentence

How you use “what” in a full sentence will depend a lot on the context and part of speech that you’re using at the time. Below, we’ve provided you with a few examples of how to use “what” in the different contexts we’ve discussed here so far.

“What” as a Question Word➤What is your favorite thing to cook on the weekend?
➤What color is your car?
“What” at the Beginning of a Noun ClauseThe music is really loud, so I can’t hear what you’re saying.
Do you know what we’re supposed to do for this assignment?
“What” as a Pronoun➤What are the main characteristics of a good roommate?
➤What is your opinion on the new designs?
“What” as an InterjectionPerson 1: Hey, can you lend me a thousand dollars?
Person 2: What!? That’s a lot of money!

Person 1: So, what do you think?Person 2:
What? Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.

Is It Grammatically Correct to Say “What”?

In most of the contexts that we’ve explored here, it is absolutely correct to use “what.” However, there are a couple of ways that people use “what” incorrectly.

The most common mistakes people make when using “what” usually involve confusing it with the words “that” or “which,” especially when starting a dependent clause, such as a noun clause or an adjective clause.

Remember, “what” can start a noun clause; you usually use it to start a noun clause referring to the object of the sentence. On the other hand, “that” and “which” are more popular options for starting an adjective clause. “What” doesn’t start a dependent adjective clause very often at all.

When Not to Use “What”

There are a couple of cases where people use “what” incorrectly. The first one has to do with formality, while the second is a grammatical mistake. 

Let’s check out these common problems and explore the solutions and explanations. 

What Can You Use Instead of “What”?

If you’re looking for a different way to express the interjection “What!?” in a formal or professional setting, there are a lot of great options out there. 

Check out these alternative ways to say “What?” when you need a handy interjection:

  • I beg your pardon?
  • Could you please repeat that?
  • Come again?
  • Sorry, I didn’t catch that.

Of course, there’s no need to replace “What?” if you’re just hanging out with friends, family members, or classmates. These options are great, though, if you’re looking to bump up the formality of your language in a professional setting or conversation. 

“What” Versus “That” in Dependent Clauses

Another word that people often confuse with “what” is “that,” specifically in the context of adjective clauses. 

It’s a bit complicated, but basically, we can use “what” to signal the start of the dependent noun clause when the subject of the main sentence and the subject of the noun clause are the same. Otherwise, we can use “that.”

Let’s look at an example for some clarification:

Q: What did you learn about today in science class?

A: We learned that there are eight planets in the solar system.

Q: When I was a kid, there were nine planets. What happened to Pluto?

A: Pluto doesn’t have what it takes to be a planet, it seems.

Here, you can see how both “that” and “what” can start a dependent noun clause. However, when the subject of the sentence is the same as the subject of the noun clause — as in the last sentence of the example — you should use “what.” 

However, if the subject of the sentence is different from the subject of the noun clause — like in the second sentence of the example — then you should use “that” to start the noun clause. This article was written for

When it comes to a dependent adjective clause, it’s best to use “that” instead of “what” in nearly every case. While there are a few exceptions in some dialects of English, in academic and standard English, we don’t use “what” to start a dependent adjective clause. 

Final Thoughts

There are lots of different ways to use the word “what” in English. For example, you can use “what” as a question word, the first word in a dependent noun clause, a pronoun, and even an interjection. You must understand how and why you’re using this versatile word since there are so many ways to use “what.” 

When it comes to using the interjection “What!?,” you should pay attention to your surroundings. That’s because this interjection is informal, so it isn’t appropriate for a professional or formal setting. 

If you’re talking with someone from an older generation or with your boss, then it’s best to avoid using “What!?” as an interjection. Overall, there are so many ways to use the word “what” in English, so it’s essential to pay attention to the role and goal of the word every time you use it.