What? An adverb?

A reader’s question led me to look up the word “what” today. He asked about the phrase “what with,” as in this example: We didn’t have a chance get to the beach this year, what with Caroline’s illness and Wesley’s summer job. The reader wondered how to label the phrase grammatically.

I turned to some books, looking for the answer. Finally, I looked up “what” in the three dictionaries on my home office desk and found they all address this phrase directly.

Here is part of the entry in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition:

what adverb, … used to introduce prepositional phrases in parallel construction or a prepositional phrase that expresses cause and usually has more than one object; used principally before phrases beginning with “with.”

Even though I have used that construction before, I had never thought about the function of the word “what.” It’s interesting that this word, usually a pronoun, can also be an adverb. The entry on “what” lists other common phrases, too, such as “what if” and “what’s what.” If I were an English-as-a-second-language speaker, I would find it useful to turn to the dictionary to help me get a handle on idioms. But even as a native speaker, I find the dictionary useful to help me explain idioms.

Please note that dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. Whether the phrase “what with” sounds right to you probably depends on your background. If the phrase sounds colloquial to you, then you might choose not to use it in formal writing. I haven’t looked very far, but I haven’t found any prescriptive prohibition against the phrase.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.