1

what

pronoun \ ˈhwät , ˈhwət , ˈwät , ˈwət \

Definition of what

1 a (1) used as an interrogative expressing inquiry about the identity, nature, or value of an object or matter
  • what is this
  • what is wealth without friends
  • what does he earn
  • what hath God wrought
(2) often used to ask for repetition of an utterance or part of an utterance not properly heard or understood
  • you said what
b (1) archaic : who 1 used as an interrogative expressing inquiry about the identity of a person
(2) used as an interrogative expressing inquiry about the character, nature, occupation, position, or role of a person
  • what do you think I am, a fool
  • what is she, that all our swains commend her
  • —William Shakespeare
c used as an exclamation expressing surprise or excitement and frequently introducing a question
  • what, no breakfast
d used in expressions directing attention to a statement that the speaker is about to make
  • you know what
e (1) used at the end of a question to express inquiry about additional possibilities
  • is it raining, or snowing, or what
(2) used with or at the end of a question usually in expectation of agreement
  • is this exciting, or what
f chiefly British used at the end of an utterance as a form of tag question
  • a clever play, what
2 chiefly dialectal : 4that 1, which 3, who 3
3 a : that which : the one or ones that
  • no income but what he gets from his writings
sometimes used in reference to a clause or phrase that is yet to come or is not yet complete
  • gave also, what is more valuable, understanding
b : the thing or things that
  • what you need is a vacation
  • what angered us was the tone of the article
4 a : whatever 1a
  • say what you will
b obsolete : whoever
what for
1 : for what purpose or reason : why usually used with the other words of a question between what and for
  • what did you do that for
except when used alone
2 : harsh treatment especially by blows or by a sharp reprimand
  • gave him what for in violent Spanish
  • New Yorker
what have you
: whatnot
  • novels, plays, short stories, travelogues, and what have you
  • —Haldeen Braddy
what if
1 : what will or would be the result if
2 : what does it matter if
  • so what if he doesn't like it
what of
1 : what is the situation with respect to
2 : what importance can be assigned to
what's more
: in addition : furthermore
what's what
: the true state of things
  • knows what's what when it comes to fashion
what though
: what does it matter if
  • what though the rose have prickles, yet 'tis plucked
  • —William Shakespeare

Origin and Etymology of what

Middle English, from Old English hwæt, neuter of hwā who — more at who


2

what

adverb

Definition of what

1 obsolete : why
2 : in what respect : how
  • what does he care
3 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
  • what with unemployment increasing
  • what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk
  • —William Shakespeare

Recent Examples of what from the Web

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'what.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

First Known Use of what

before 12th century


3

what

adjective

Definition of what

1 a used as an interrogative expressing inquiry about the identity, nature, or value of a person, object, or matter
  • what minerals do we export
b : how remarkable or striking for good or bad qualities used especially in exclamatory utterances and dependent clauses
  • what mountains
  • remember what fun we had
  • what a suggestion
  • what a charming girl
2 a (1) : whatever 1a
(2) : any
  • ornament of what description soever
b : the … that : as much or as many … as
  • rescued what survivors they found

Recent Examples of what from the Web

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'what.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

First Known Use of what

13th century


WHAT Defined for English Language Learners

what

pronoun

Definition of what for English Language Learners

  • —used to ask for information about someone or something

  • —used to describe a question

  • —used to express surprise, excitement, etc.


what

adverb

Definition of what for English Language Learners

  • : in what way


what

adjective

Definition of what for English Language Learners

  • —used to ask someone to indicate the identity or nature of someone or something

  • —used to say that someone or something is remarkable for having good or bad qualities

  • —used to refer to an amount that someone has, uses, etc.


WHAT Defined for Kids

1

what

pronoun \ ˈhwät , ˈhwət , ˈwät , ˈwət \

Definition of what for Students

1 : which thing or things
  • What happened?
2 : which sort of thing or person
  • What is this?
  • What are they, doctors?
  • … “what could be more important than doing unimportant things?”
  • —Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
3 : that which
  • Do what you're told.
From what he said, I guessed he was new.
4 used to ask someone to repeat something
  • You did what?
5 : 1whatever 1
  • Take what you need.
what for
: 1why
  • He seemed in a very bad temper … though I could not tell what for.
  • —Anna Sewell, Black Beauty
what if
1 : what would happen if
  • What if they find out?
2 : what does it matter if
  • So what if they do? I don't care.

2

what

adverb

Definition of what for Students

1 : in what way : how
  • What does it matter?
2 used before one or more phrases that tell a cause
  • What with the school and sports, she's busy.

3

what

adjective

Definition of what for Students

1 used to ask about the identity of a person, object, or matter
  • What books do you read?
2 : how remarkable or surprising
  • What an idea!
3 : 2whatever 1
  • I don't know what else to say.


Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up what? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!

WORD OF THE DAY

of, relating to, or being an oracle

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Intact Latin Quiz

  • roman-tablet
  • What did focus mean in Latin?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

TAKE THE QUIZ
Dictionary Devil

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.

TAKE THE QUIZ

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!