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)
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
(2)
archaic : who sense 1
used as an interrogative expressing inquiry about the identity of a person
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
a
: the thing or things that
What you need is a vacation.
What angered us was the tone of the article.
b
: 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
3
a
: whatever sense 1a
say what you will
b
obsolete : whoever
4

what

2 of 3

adverb

1
: in what respect : how
What does he care?
2
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 increasingwhat with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk. William Shakespeare
3
obsolete : why

what

3 of 3

adjective

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
: the … that : as much or as many … as
rescued what survivors they found
(2)
: any
ornament of what description soever
Phrases
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

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web
Adverb
Read his full remarks from the Phoenix rally below: TRUMP: What a crowd. Time, 23 Aug. 2017
Adjective
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who's still traveling in Europe, says that schools will open September 5, no matter what Rauner does about funding. Kate Shepherd, Chicago Reader, 20 July 2017 Senior Matt Boyle, the biggest newcomer on offense as Jack Sznajder's successor at quarterback, knows what a Cooney brings to the table. Blake Baumgartner, Naperville Sun, 18 July 2017 IndyStar: What stands out to you in Matt Balis’ workouts? Laken Litman, Indianapolis Star, 14 July 2017 The costumes were incredible, and a highlight for the kids was guessing what kinds of insects were performing. Jennifer Jhon, South Florida Parenting, 14 July 2017 Customers over 65 years old will be asked additional questions to catch any discrepancies between what they were told by contractors and what contractors submit to the lender. Ron Hurtibise, Sun-Sentinel.com, 13 July 2017 In what ways does this distinct setting influence the story? Patricia Shannon, Southern Living, 11 July 2017 If our medieval predecessors felt it important enough to create and save these texts centuries ago, there’s no telling what discoveries could be revealed under the light of the Manuscript Illuminator. Ken Krebs, Scientific American Blog Network, 7 July 2017 Francona has been undergoing tests to determine what has been causing lightheadedness and increasing his heart rate. New York Times, 5 July 2017 See More

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.

Word History

Etymology

Pronoun

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

First Known Use

Pronoun

before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a(1)

Adverb

before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 3

Adjective

13th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of what was before the 12th century

Dictionary Entries Near what

Cite this Entry

“What.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/what. Accessed 28 Nov. 2022.

Kids Definition

what 1 of 3

pronoun

(ˈ)hwät How to pronounce what (audio) (ˈ)hwət How to pronounce what (audio)
(ˈ)wät,
(ˈ)wət
1
a
: which thing or things
what happened?
b
: which sort of thing or person
what is this?
what are they—doctors?
2
used to ask one to repeat something said but not properly heard or understood
you said what?
3
used to express surprise or excitement
what, no breakfast?
4
used to direct attention to something that the speaker is about to say
you know what?
5
: that which
do what you're told
6
: whatever entry 1 sense 1
say what you will
what for what have you 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

what

2 of 3

adverb

1
: in what way : how
what does it matter
2
used before one or more phrases that tell a cause
what with school and sports, she kept busy

what

3 of 3

adjective

1
a
used to ask about the identity of a person, object, or matter
what books do you read
b
: how remarkable or surprising
what an idea
2

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