Interrogative Reversal in "What is that?"

Logopedist

New Member
English
I'm having difficulty determining if "What is that?" contains interrogative reversal.

My impression is that the sentence could be construed as "[Something] is that" or "That is [something]." Either way, I think the subject is moving, and the verb is remaining in place, meaning there is no reversal. Or is it that the subject and verb are actually reversing, but "is" remains the second word because this is such a short sentence?

I'm familiar with other interrogative reversals. For example, "who" doesn't need a reversal in "Who is she?" or "it is" needs one in "Is it right?" I just need help with this one case above. Thanks.
 
  • owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Asking "What is that?" is certainly normal. It's also possible to say "That is what?", which is unusual. Speakers would give a strong rising tone to the word "what" in such a question. Context would probably lead them to choose this form. If a speaker said "That is a convexoequibrilator" or some other crazy term, then responding with "That is what?" would sound normal.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I'm not sure what the issue is. In English, under normal circumstances the wh- word(what, when, where, how, which), with possibly a preposition preceding it (from where, in what way, etc.),in interrogatives is in front, regardless of whether it is the subject or the object or something else.

    That is a cat usually identifies 'that' (structure: Subject + Verb + Complement)
    A cat is that usually identifies the category 'cat' (structure: Subject + Verb + Complement)

    The order can be reversed for either, and the stress and intonation becomes important.

    What is that? is the interrogative form for both sentences.
     

    Logopedist

    New Member
    English
    I should be clearer. My question has nothing to do with stress and intonation. I'm trying to score language for a child, so I have to determine the child's level of ability based on his use of correct grammar or the errors he makes in a number of categories. One of those categories is interrogative reversal.

    You probably already know this, but I just want to clarify. If I say, "Who is there?" then there is no interrogative reversal in the answer "Mom is there" because "who" takes the exact place of the subject. If I say "Is it right?" then there is a subject and verb reversal because the answer would be "it is right." When scoring a child's speech, the first would be considered less advanced, and the second more advanced because the child would have had to learn that asking those types of questions in English requires reversal of subject and verb.

    My question for the forum is whether or not "What is that?" has the interrogative reversal and is therefore the more difficult structure. If I answer "That is [something]" have I reversed the subject and the verb?
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    After looking at some abstracts on the internet to shore up my understanding of "interrogative reversal", I'll stick my neck out and say that the question does employ interrogative reversal. As I understand it, the interrogative pronoun "what" doesn't really count as a subject. "Is" comes before "that" (the subject) in the question. "That" comes before "is" in your answer, so you've reversed the order of the verb and the subject in the answer.

    I'm certainly no specialist, however. Maybe one will drop in to clear things up.
     
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    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    My question for the forum is whether or not "What is that?" has the interrogative reversal and is therefore the more difficult structure. If I answer "That is [something]" have I reversed the subject and the verb?
    My answer was that it could or it could not, so this is not a good interrogative for your scoring, because you can say both

    That is a cat. (identifying the animal)
    A cat is that. (showing what a cat is)

    That is not to say that you are more likely to encounter the former than the latter, but both sentences are possible.
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    When the interrogative word is subject, no actual change of position takes place, since it's already in first place. Theoretical linguists may dispute over whether it still underlyingly moves forward from subject place to wh-place. However, there is no reversal in sentences such as these:

    Who did that?
    What interests you?

    'Is' has the unusual property that in one of its meanings its two complements are interchangeable: A = B means B = A. So we get the two possibilities discussed above, one with and one without reversal.

    However, I think in practice What is that? almost always expects an answer in the form That is a cat, so it questions the predicative complement a cat, brings it forward to wh-position, and triggers reversal.
     
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