what the matter is

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buttle

Senior Member
France French
Hi everyone,

Which sentence is correct ? :

Context : somebody doesn't know what's going on and does not understand.

1 : "He does not know what the matter is"
2 : "He does not know what is the matter".

I think that the latter is not correct but you can say it nevertheless while talking. Am I totally right ?
 
  • Dimcl

    Senior Member
    Canadian English
    No, not at all. You may hear it said during conversation but it is wrong, wrong, wrong. If I heard it said this way (and I never do), I would assume one of two things... either the speaker is not a native-speaker or they are not well-educated.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    No, not at all. You may hear it said during conversation but it is wrong, wrong, wrong. If I heard it said this way (and I never do), I would assume one of two things... either the speaker is not a native-speaker or they are not well-educated.
    I'm very interested, Dimcl. You would have to assume those things of me. I could say either and would prefer I don't know what is the matter, the one you say is wrong wrong wrong. I think it's perfectly right in BE and Google seems to agree with me, giving it precedence over the other form, though the numbers are so low as not to be important indications.

    P.S. I've had better results with

    "I know what the matter is" Google 270K; Google (UK) 16 (not 16,000, just 16 - several of which were from the same work)
    "I know what is the matter" Google 380K; Google (UK) 110

    I included hits for what's the matter along with hits for what is the matter.

    I think this is at least evidence that the second form is as acceptable to many native speakers as it is to me.
     

    The Slippery Slide

    Senior Member
    British English
    I have to say, as another British person, that I haven't had the same experience as Thomas. "I don't know what is the matter" sounds really weird to my ears.

    No, actually, while I was typing that, I thought about it, and "I don't know what's the matter" doesn't sound so strange. I think British people do say that, but it's always "what's" rather than "what is".

    It is, of course, technically wrong, but I think it happens because we say "I don't know what's wrong", and so people have started using the same structure for "the matter".
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Hello, Slippery Slide. You say you know that something is technically wrong somewhere. I'd be very grateful if you could be more specific and show us where and in what way.

    Here are three examples of the 'wrong' form from more or less reputable authors:

    Conan Doyle - The Dying Detective:

    "It's for your own sake, Watson," he croaked.
    "For my sake?" "I know what is the matter with me. It is a coolie disease from Sumatra

    Tolkein

    ‘I know what is the matter with me,’ [Gandalf] muttered, as he sat down by the door. ‘I need smoke! …’

    Winston Churchill - A Far Country

    “I know what’s the matter with you, Ralph Hambleton,” she would say. “You’re jealous.” An accusation that invariably put him on the defensive. “You think all the girls are in love with you, don’t you?”
     

    The Slippery Slide

    Senior Member
    British English
    I can't deny that that structure used to be common, but I think most people on this forum would agree that it is generally ungrammatical in modern useage. But, as I said in my first post, yes, you have a point. When I think about it, I have heard people saying it.

    Maybe I'm wrong, but in modern English, we don't say "I don't know what is your name" or "I don't know what is the time", so "I don't know what is the matter" fits that pattern. That's the basis on which I said it was technically wrong. Very few people that I have met speak like Gandalf!

    But of course, English is riddled with inconsistencies. It's an interesting point.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Fine. Thank you, Slippery Slide. So the point, which I fully accept, is that we don't usually invert in indirect questions. Certainly not in the cases you cite.

    My point is that we seem to invert very happily in this particular indirect question. I think that shows the rule to have exceptions, rather than that we are in error when we say, along with many of our fellow natives, I don't know what's the matter. The question has got me looking for other exceptions.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    We say 'I don't know what is going on' not 'I don't know what going on is'

    What is the subject. Something is going on. Something is the subject. Something is the matter. I don't know what is the matter.

    I think the rules suggest that I don't know what the matter is is the deviant form, but I'm not prepared to say that it's wrong; indeed I would happily use the form myself. I'd be delighted to be shown in error.
     

    The Slippery Slide

    Senior Member
    British English
    How about "He doesn't know what's the best thing to do"? One wouldn't, surely, say "He doesn't know what the best thing to do is"?
    I'm not sure about that. I can't imagine saying or hearing the former OR the latter.

    "He doesn't know the best thing to do" is the way I think it would usually be said.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Apologies for being a late arrival in this thread.

    I agree that the usual construction in indirect questions is subject-verb rather than verb-subject.

    So:
    I don't know what your name is
    I don't know what the time is
    I don't know what the best thing to do is (sorry to disagree, Elwintee!)

    But I think that "what's the matter" is a more-or-less set phrase, equivalent to "what's wrong". So my vote would go to buttle's sentence 2, especially in its contracted form He doesn't know what's the matter.

    There's an interesting previous discussion here.
     

    Ivan_I

    Banned
    Russian
    It depends on the funtction which "what" performs in a sentence, I suppose.

    1) I don't know what is going on. (what is the subject of the second part of the sentence, that is, a subordinate clause)
    2) I don't know what the matter is. (matter is the subject of the second part of the sentence, that is, a subordinate clause, while what is a conjunction, if I am not wrong, but it's not the subject. That's the difference)
     
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