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I am confused by the phrases like "то, что он пишет" and by the construction "то, что" in general. For example, let us consider this sentence:

(1) То, что он пишет, и так ясно.

However simple and natural this sentence may be for you, it is truly mind-blowing for such a poor student as I am. The Russian words "тo" and "что" are tricky words used as references, and it is especially confusing when they come together to form a complicated Russian logical structure.

I am so much puzzled as to which of the following three interpretations of Sentence (1) is correct:

(2) It is obvious anyway what is contained in his writings.

(3) It is obvious anyway that he is writing.

(4) The ideas he expresses in his writings are obvious anyway.

My question is this: What is the meaning of Sentence (1), and how does "то, что" work in general?


UPDATE: Reading answers and comments, I realized I have to explain the difference between Sentences (2) and (4).

Let's suppose that you are in the 1920s and that your friend tells you, "We know that Hitler writes a book in the prison, but I just learned more details: he writes that the Jews are an evil nation and that the Germans need more living space."

You respond, "I talked with Hitler a lot in the past, so even if you had not told me, I could make a pretty good guess what ideas he is putting on paper. It is obvious that he writes that the Jews are an evil nation and that the Germans need more living space." This is the same as Sentence (2).

Now imagine that you respond differently, "He writes very obvious things. It is so obvious anyway that the Jews are an evil nation and that the Germans need more living space." This is the same as Sentence (4).

Let me try to explain the same thing in Russian.

X says, "Гитлер пишет, что немцам нужно больше пространства."

Y says: "To, что он пишет, и так ясно."

Interpretation (2) of what Y said: И так ясно, что он пишет, что немцам нужно больше пространства.

Interpretation (4) of what Y said: И так ясно, что немцам нужно больше пространства.

I humbly hope that you now understand the difference.

  • 1
    This phrase is ambiguous without context. I guess it means #3, but the context would help. – Alexander Jul 2 '19 at 17:58
  • @Alexander : So it can mean anything from (2)-(4), depending on the context? – Mitsuko Jul 2 '19 at 18:00
  • Yes, and #4 is the least likely meaning. – Alexander Jul 2 '19 at 18:00
  • As for me, (2) means the same as (4), "what is contained in his writings" is the same as "the ideas he expresses in his writings". What's the difference? – Yellow Sky Jul 2 '19 at 18:16
  • @YellowSky : I jadded an update to explain the difference between (2) and (4). – Mitsuko Jul 2 '19 at 23:50
2

Context is key here. Without context, all three interpretations you gave are technically accurate. What would validate each of them are the context and the tone. Or, if it's spoken out loud, the stress / intonation may help too, as it would indicate the speaker's emphasis.
Your first interpretation would be less likely if the tone was formal. In that case a more common formulation would be something along the lines of,

"Что он это пишет, и так ясно"

i.e. the object in the dependent clause should be explicitly stated. Omitting it is a colloquial shorthand, and seen as informal, I believe.
The second interpretation is most likely if the main topic of conversation is either the identity of the writer himself or his (potential) actions, e.g. "we know that he's writing, but what else could he be doing?", or alternatively "we know that he is writing, but who is helping him?". In this case, it's important to pay attention to which word is stressed in spoken language.
The third interpretation I would only consider feasible if the sentence was a tangential comment in a discussion about the topic of the writer's writing, e.g. (while talking about travelling blogs) "I don't like his blog, because the advice he writes is obvious anyway"

now, as to the function of the words themselves:
first, we need to realise that it's a compound sentence. The main clause is

"то ясно"

here, "то" is an indicative pronoun. This clause could technically be a full, meaningful sentence in its own right (e.g. if you said it while pointing at something). However in our case, what it's indicating is the dependent, identifying clause

"Что он пишет"

Note that if "Что" is dropped, it also becomes a full sentence. ("He writes." / "He is writing.")
But here, "Что" subordinates the clause. It's a determiner particle that "determines" the target of indication. (that target being the content of the dependent clause) The ambiguity arises because the word "Что" can also have several other grammatical functions in other contexts. Other words and phrases more specifically suited for each interpretation may be used to avoid this misunderstanding.

2) "Что он это пишет, и так ясно" (as mentioned above)
3a) "кто пишет, и так ясно"
3b) "что он делает, и так ясно" / "чем он занят, и так ясно"
4) "то, о чём он пишет, и так ясно"

As can be clearly seen, the nuance of each sentence is slightly (or vastly) different. However, each of them can be a valid paraphrasing, given the appropriate context.

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2

I can see just two different meanings.

By default (no context), version 4 is the most probable understanding. Version 2 has the same sense with different grammar. Literally, I'd translate it as:

What he writes is evident on its own. (То, что = what; literally: 'that what' or 'the things that')

Version 3 in a specific context means:

The fact that he writes (something, some works, etc.) goes without saying. (То, что = the fact that)

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  • I beg to disagree here. To match version #4, the form "То, о чем он пишет" would have been preferred. – Alexander Jul 2 '19 at 21:45
  • I don't reverse-translate those versions here and only define global difference in meaning between versions 2/4 and 3. I agree with the already expressed opinion that versions 2 & 4 have the same general meaning and reveal correct understanding of the original Russian sentence. – Alex_ander Jul 2 '19 at 22:07
  • I just added an update to explain the difference between (2) and (4). – Mitsuko Jul 2 '19 at 23:53
1

The confusion here arises from the fact that the English conjunction that and the conjunctive pronoun what are both translated as что in Russian:

I know that you know. – Я знаю, что ты знаешь. (a)

but also

I know what you know. – Я знаю, что ты знаешь. (b)

Without hearing those Russian sentences, without any context, it is absolutely impossible to tell what exactly что means. In the 19th and the early 20th centuries, there was a way to differentiate them: when что was used as a pronoun in the meaning of what, like in (b), it was written with a gravis accent, чтò. Nowadays they also (sometimes) highlight it either by italics or by an acute accent, чтo, чтó.

There is a reason why the pronoun чтò (b) is highlighted, not the conjunction чтo (a). The pronoun чтò usually has a real distinct stress in oral speech, while the conjunction чтo has none. That is why, your sentence (1) should be interpreted as having the conjunction чтo, since it is not highlighted in any way, so the translation (3) is the best.

But if we assume that either the editor was careless or there's a typo, and the sentence should have been written as То, чтò он пишет, и так ясно, then translations (2) or (4) fit the sentence. Russian has a number of ways to express the meanings (2) and (4) unambiguously, but in case of (1), it can well mean both (2) and (4).

Here's how the unambiguous sentences look like:

То, чтò [именно] он пишет, и так ясно. (2)

То, чтo он пишет, и так ясно. (3)

То, o чём он пишет, и так ясно. (4)

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  • I think the sentence То, o чём он пишет, и так ясно doesn't differ from (2) as much as to fit the version The ideas he expresses in his writings are obvious anyway. I think so because ideas are the author's thoughts in a written form (same with 'what is contained' - in version 2) while то, о чём (what he writes about) belongs to reality - as the subject of his writings. – Alex_ander Jul 3 '19 at 5:31
0

[то] = [that]
[что] = [what]
[то, что ...] = [that, what ...]

[То, что он пишет, и так ясно.] = [That, what he is writing, is clear anyway.]

[То, что он пишет, и так ясно.] is a mix of 2 sentances.

1) He is writing that.
2) That is clear anyway.

[that] is used as glue point and you get 2 sentances in just one.

[ [He is writing that.] is clear anyway.]

It is obvious anyway what is contained in his writings.

No. In this version [obvious] is about the fact of containing.

To express this meaning:
[И так понятно, что он там пишет.]
(during pronoucing this phrase it is better to stress [что])

In writing they usually write this like this:
[И так понятно, ЧТО он там пишет.]

It is possible to create this meaning in your example, by stressing [ЧТО]
[То, (pause) ЧТО он пишет, (pause) и так ясно.]

It is obvious anyway that he is writing.

No. In this version [obvious] is about the fact that he is writing.

To express this meaning:
[И так понятно, что он пишет.] (during pronoucing this phrase it is better to stress [пишет])

[И так понятно, что он ПИШЕТ.]

It is possible to create this meaning in your example, by stressing [ПИШЕТ]
[То, что он ПИШЕТ, (pause) и так ясно.]

The ideas he expresses in his writings are obvious anyway.

Yes. That's right.

[То, что он пишет, и так понятно.]
(during pronoucing this phrase it is better to stress [то] and [и так])

[ТО, (pause) что он пишет, И ТАК понятно.]

This reading is default, based on structure.
The rest two readings, given above are creative readings.

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0

Yes, it can be interpreted all these three ways.

The variant (4) is less likely because it uses ясно instead of more suitable "очевидно".

If the author would use очевидно instead of ясно, it would somehow reduce the ambiguity in favor of variant (4), while the current version in my opinion is more inclined in favor of variant (2).

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