There are a number of Russian authors known by a hyphenated combination of their real surnames and their pseudonyms (I wrote a brief post about one such name here), and I always assumed everybody knew the names were connected, but I learn from Contemporaries thought Bestuzhev and Marlinskii were two different people, at XIX век, that, well, contemporaries thought Bestuzhev and his pseudonym Marlinsky were two different people.

And while I’m sending you over to XIX век, perhaps somebody can help out with the previous post, Question for Russian grammar experts? The question is what the “confusing extra что” is doing in sentences like “Первая мысль его при этом была, что ответствен ли он перед этой женщиной” and “Ему всего приятнее было подумать, что в каких дураках останется теперь г-н доктор.” It’s a curious construction, and now I’m curious too.


  1. The first что is not ‘what’, but ‘whether’, ie
    ‘His first thought during this was whether he was answerable before this woman.’
    The second что is ‘how’, ie
    ‘It was all more pleasant for him to think how Mr/Sir/[the good] doctor would now be stuck amongst such idiots.’

  2. One of the various functions of the word что in Russian is as a subordinating conjunction. The function of что in both examples is to introduce a full SVO-group [i.e. clause] acting as the O inside another SVO group [i.e. the main clause].
    In both examples, что may be translated as “that”, but in English, the “that” can frequently disappear in examples such as “I know [that] it’s possible,” while in Russian, it’s required to mark the transition and thus not “extra” or “confusing”.
    MMK’s translations as “whether” and “how” make the English clearer than the word “that”, but both are functioning as subordinating conjunctions in English as well.

  3. “The first что is not ‘what’, but ‘whether’.” But there is already a “whether” in the clause: ли plays that role. The что seems to double on the ли unnecessarily.
    In the second sentence, the natural-sounding conjunction would be “о том” or zero, rather than “что”.
    Perhaps it’s Pisemsky’s Kostroma dialect.

  4. The second phrase should rather be
    ‘To him, most pleasant was the thought that the doctor would have made a fool of himself.’ (what a fool the doctor would have made of himself.)
    I think in both examples here ‘что’ is the conjunction ‘that’, introducing a subordinate construction (indirect speech). After что Pissemski seems to treat the subordinate clause as a separate sentence, as though it were a piece of direct speech. Hence the feeling that что is an unnecessary extra. In both these examples ‘что’ can be dropped without changing the meaning of the phrase. Such constructions are not uncommon with indirect speech, but feel dated to me.
    There is another curious example (2) on XIX век:
    Скажите, что в гимназии учат писать стихи?
    Tell me, at gymnasium, do they teach to write poetry?
    Что can be easily dropped here too.
    But you can also treat it not as a conjunction, but as an interrogative pronoun (‘what’, not ‘that’). In this case, however, there is an intonational pause in speech after что, which in writing is usually indicated by a comma, sometimes by a dash. Sometimes there is no punctuation and it’s left to the reader to decide which is it. A native reader usually doesn’t get confused.
    Скажите, что | в гимназии учат писать стихи?

  5. Ian Press says

    I agree on the whole with Sasha. Somehow the что seems associated more with what precedes than with what follows, and what precedes are on the whole verbs which may introduce indirect speech. It’s like the что is some sort of subordinator telling us indirect speech is on the way. And Sasha’s intonation idea may be persuasive, though it doesn’t have to be. It would be interesting to know if it is indeed dialectal and/or dated; the latter is difficult to be sure about – most anything can happen, any time.

  6. Thanks to all the commenters here for helping me understand how this construction sounds to others, and to Languagehat for sending the philological cavalry!

  7. This is a curious construction, but I hear the apparently superfluous что as somewhat parallel to the kind of English construction where you might use a colon:
    “His first thought here was: did he have a responsibility to this woman?”
    “The thing that gave him the most pleasure was to think: what idiots the good doctor would now be left with.”
    In other words, the что tells us that what follows is the thought as it was formulated in his head. It strike me as a form of free indirect speech, or erlebte Rede, to use the more precise German term.

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