Word order: SV what is what

cheshire

Senior Member
Japanese
(1) I don't know what's the matter.
(2) I don't know what the matter is.
(3) When she hung up I asked her what the matter was.
(4) When she hung up I asked her what was the matter.

Which word order would you choose? I found (1) and (3) used in a book.
 
  • Thomas Tompion

    Member Emeritus
    English - England
    (1) I don't know what's the matter.:tick: :)

    (2) I don't know what the matter is.:tick: suggests to my ear that you are a little more concerned than in (1)

    (3) When she hung up I asked her what the matter was.:tick: this is ok but just a bit clumsy

    (4) When she hung up I asked her what was the matter.:tick: :)

    Which word order would you choose? I found (1) and (3) used in a book.

    I've put my reactions into your text, cheshire.

    I've ignored in 3 and 4 the fact that it would be hard for you to ask her questions after she had hung up, which is what they both imply.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Member Emeritus
    English - England
    I believe there are many English teachers who teach only 2, 3 are right.
    Thank you very much!

    That's very interesting, Cheshire. I think Sally and I disagree with them. Incidentally, Sally was quite right to correct me about talking to her after she had hung up. I was imagining you talking to her on the phone, as opposed to her ringing someone else while you were in the room.
     

    Sallyb36

    Senior Member
    British UK
    That's very interesting, Cheshire. I think Sally and I disagree with them. Incidentally, Sally was quite right to correct me about talking to her after she had hung up. I was imagining you talking to her on the phone, as opposed to her ringing someone else while you were in the room.


    We do disagree with them Thomas! I wonder if these English teachers are native speakers or not?
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Member Emeritus
    English - England
    We do disagree with them Thomas! I wonder if these English teachers are native speakers or not?

    Probably not, Sally, but teachers of English have understandable trouble with the enormous flexibility of English grammar. They try to hang onto rules - about inversion, for instance, in this case, without knowing for sure when a native speaker would or wouldn't apply them. Even native speakers, after a few years abroad talking another language, can start asking themselves if people really would say that.

    I've every sympathy with the teachers. I have lived a long time in France, and people's reaction to some of my posts in this forum has suggested to me that my grasp on the English language is becoming uncertain.
     

    cheshire

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    They are not native speakers. They hypothesize often as they learn. We can't blame them for it per se, but we could for not checking what they hypothesized with natives.
     

    Sallyb36

    Senior Member
    British UK
    Thank you Cheshire - I am getting like that as well Thomas because I speak Spanish so much now - my son told me that my way of speaking English has changed. I say things like No? at the end of a sentence instead of isn't it? for example, totally unconciously. A different language changes the way you think about language structure so much.
     

    cheshire

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    Indeed, sallyb!:)

    He wanted to know, "What's the matter?"
    1. He wanted to know what the matter was.
    2. He wanted to know what was the matter.

    In sentence one "the matter" is the subject of the clause, while in sentence two it's the complement. I can accept both constructions. But what happens when both appear in the same text as follows?

    The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
    Chapter 10 - Dreadful Occurrences in Madagascar

    All this while, I knew not what was the matter, but rousing immediately from sleep with the noise, I caused the boat to be thrust in, and resolved with three fusees we had on board to land and assist our men.
    ...
    My nephew, the captain, who was roused by his men seeing such a fire, was very uneasy, not knowing what the matter was, or what danger I was in, especially hearing the guns too, for by this time they began to use their firearms...

    Was Defoe using the two constructions interchangeably, or did he make a distinction in meaning? I suppose if the latter, the second "matter" referred to what had been previously identified?
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Member Emeritus
    English - England
    Indeed, sallyb!:)

    He wanted to know, "What's the matter?"
    1. He wanted to know what the matter was.
    2. He wanted to know what was the matter.

    In sentence one "the matter" is the subject of the clause, while in sentence two it's the complement. I can accept both constructions. But what happens when both appear in the same text as follows?

    The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
    Chapter 10 - Dreadful Occurrences in Madagascar

    All this while, I knew not what was the matter, but rousing immediately from sleep with the noise, I caused the boat to be thrust in, and resolved with three fusees we had on board to land and assist our men.
    ...
    My nephew, the captain, who was roused by his men seeing such a fire, was very uneasy, not knowing what the matter was, or what danger I was in, especially hearing the guns too, for by this time they began to use their firearms...
    Was Defoe using the two constructions interchangeably, or did he make a distinction in meaning? I suppose if the latter, the second "matter" referred to what had been previously identified?

    I don't think there is any nuance of meaning, Cheshire. I think the point here is that the sequence of the second sentence, what the matter was, what danger I was in...etc suggested to Defoe the order of words. He wanted the noun soon after the what, because that was the form of the next phrase in the sequence.

    Just a suggestion.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    cheshire said:
    ... the second "matter" referred to what had been previously identified?

    That is my interpretation. "Not knowing what the matter was" is more matter-of-fact than "not knowing what was the matter". "What the matter was" refers to the thing that caused the noise; "what was the matter" refers to the question of what caused the noise.
     

    cheshire

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    Oh, I got it!:thumbsup:

    Thomas Thompion: Defoe chose the word order because of the "parallelism".

    Forero: In "What S is", "what" is the subject, whereas in "what is S", S functions as adjective.

    Thanks, for always helping me with amazing skill of teaching, and insight deeper than Mariana Trench!:)
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I believe there are many English teachers who teach only 2, 3 are right.
    I agree with your teachers. To me, 1 and 4 might well be found in speech or writing, as an anacoluthon. To me, in All this while, I knew not what was the matter Defoe deliberately switches from the word order of indirect speech to the word order of direct speech for dramatic effect (anacoluthia).
     

    imagination

    New Member
    Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbian, Bosnian
    Maybe, those sentences can be heard in speech but are they grammatically correct? For example, in every language, we can hear some sentences that are usual in speech but when we consider them better they are not grammatically correct although many people use them.
    Why would then many grammar books say that the sentences:
    I don't know what the matter is and
    When she hung up I asked her what the matter was
    are correct if that’s not true?!

    Then, grammar books must be wrong?!:eek:
     

    teia_55

    Member
    Romania/Romanian
    Maybe, those sentences can be heard in speech but are they grammatically correct? For example, in every language, we can hear some sentences that are usual in speech but when we consider them better they are not grammatically correct although many people use them.
    Why would then many grammar books say that the sentences:
    I don't know what the matter is and
    When she hung up I asked her what the matter was
    are correct if that’s not true?!

    Then, grammar books must be wrong?!:eek:


    Your sentences are correct , and so are the grammar books!
    The sentences above are not interrogative ones, so the grammatical order of words is :S, V, etc.
    e.g. "..the matter is [ S-V]

    If you were to take an FCE examination , then you should use this natural order of words, unless you have to ask a question :
    "What is/was the matter?"
    Answer: "I don`t know what the matter is / was."
     

    imagination

    New Member
    Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbian, Bosnian
    Teia......I agree with you...

    But what about all these native speakers who have different opinions?!
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Member Emeritus
    English - England
    Your sentences are correct , and so are the grammar books!
    The sentences above are not interrogative ones, so the grammatical order of words is :S, V, etc.
    e.g. "..the matter is [ S-V]

    If you were to take an FCE examination , then you should use this natural order of words, unless you have to ask a question :
    "What is/was the matter?"
    Answer: "I don`t know what the matter is / was."
    In everyday BE it's entirely correct to say either: I don't know what's the matter, or I don't know what the matter is.

    You book is right to say one of them is correct, because both are correct, but it would be wrong to say that only one of them is correct.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    I have spent most of today pondering what is going on with these sentences, and I think I can explain it all. I hope this is helpful as my intent is to clarify what is or isn't a rule for word order, particularly in indirect questions. Here goes –

    The normal order of a yes-or-no question is like that of a statement but with a finite verb in front of the subject:

    “Do we trust that person?” = “Answer whether this is true: We trust that person.”
    "Can I do something?" = "Is this true? - I can do something."
    “Are those people masons?” = “True? - Those people are masons.”
    “Is John a carpenter?” = “True? - John is a carpenter.”
    "Does a turtle hold the earth up?" = "True? - A turtle holds the earth up."
    “Does Atlas hold the earth up?” = “True? - Atlas holds the earth up.”

    A “who(m)” or "what" question is similar but different. Instead of "yes" or "no", we are asking for a noun phrase. We construct a question by starting with the skeleton of a statement, leaving nothing where the noun phrase in question would be (except maybe a comma if needed to keep two phrases from joining inappropriately), and prefixing everything with the appropriate interrogative pronoun. A finite verb comes in front of the subject unless the interrogative pronoun (representing the noun phrase in question) is itself the subject:

    “Who(m) do we trust?” = “Fill in the blank with a noun phrase: We trust _.”
    "What can I do?" = "Fill in the blank with a noun phrase: I can do _."
    “What are those people?” = “Fill in the blank with a noun phrase: Those people are _.”
    “What is John?” = “Fill in the blank with a noun phrase: John is _.”
    “Who is a carpenter?” = “Fill in the blank with a noun phrase: _ is a carpenter.”
    "Who or what holds the earth up?" = "Fill in the blank with a noun phrase: _ holds the earth up."

    The word order is like a yes-or-no question in most of these examples because a verb comes ahead of the subject. In the last two examples, the word order is like a statement because the interrogative pronoun has to be first and cannot have a verb in front of it.

    Now, if a “who(m)”/"what" question itself is being used as a noun phrase in another sentence (as an indirect question), the word order is the same as that of a relative clause and the same as that of a statement with the noun phrase in question omitted but with “what” prefixed. A verb does not come ahead of its subject in an indirect question:

    “I don’t know who(m) we trust.”
    "I don't know what I can do."
    “I don’t know what those people are.”
    “I don’t know what John is.”
    “I don’t know who is a carpenter.”
    "I don't know who or what holds the earth up."

    The following two sentences are identical in meaning, except in the matter of emphasis, but they have different subjects:

    “The most important thing to consider was the people who elected him.”
    “The people who elected him were the most important thing to consider.”

    The subject of the first of this pair of sentences is “the most important thing to consider”, but the subject of the second sentence is “the people who elected him”. This is why the verb is “was” in the first sentence but “were” in the second. Agreement is with whichever comes first.

    To make yes-or-no questions, we move the verb ahead of the subject:

    “Was the most important thing to consider, the people who elected him?”
    “Were the people who elected him the most important thing to consider?”

    (The comma keeps "the people" from becoming the object of "to consider".)

    Things get more complicated when we want to ask:

    “Fill in the blank with a noun phrase: The most important thing to consider was _.”
    “Fill in the blank with a noun phrase: _ were the most important thing to consider.”

    In the first sentence, the blank can be filled in with most any noun phrase, singular or plural, but in the second sentence, we expect a plural answer. The first elicits a “what”, the second a “who”:

    “What was the most important thing to consider?”
    “Who were the most important thing to consider?”

    “Who were” may seem a little strange because it implies or pretends that we don’t know the answer but we know it is going to be plural and human in spite of the generality of “thing to consider”, but, in the right context, it is not outside normal English usage.

    Making these into indirect questions is straightforward:

    “I didn’t know what the most important thing to consider was.”
    “I didn’t know who were the most important thing to consider.”

    Two more examples, I hope, will help make clear why Defoe’s sentence is normal:

    Statement: “Santa’s reindeer made a noise.”
    Yes or no: “Did Santa’s reindeer make a noise?”
    Direct question: “What made the noise?” = “Fill in the blank: _ made a noise.”
    Indirect question: “I sprang from my bed to see what made the noise.” = “I sprang from my bed to see what it was that made the noise.”

    Statement: “Something was the matter.”
    Yes or no: “Was something the matter?”
    Direct question: “What was the matter?” = “Fill in the blank: _ was the matter.”
    Indirect question: “I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.” = “I sprang from my bed to see what it was that was the matter.”

    Starting with Defoe's “not knowing what the matter was” and reversing the foregoing process gives:

    Indirect question: “…, not knowing what the matter was, …”
    Direct question: “What was the matter?”
    Yes or no: “Was the matter something?”
    Statement: “The matter was something.”

    These last two sentences sound strange because using “the matter” as a subject makes the meaning more concrete than when “the matter” is a complement. But “the matter” in the context Defoe is using it is an idiomatic expression for something not known and hence indefinite.

    I think what makes “the matter” workable in Defoe’s “what the matter was” is that it refers both to something that has already been identified, which allows it to be used as a subject, and at the same time to something not known (to the captain), which allows it to be “the matter”.
     

    SleepyMutt

    Banned
    Russian
    I don't know what a computer is. ( I know how the computer looks but I don't know what it does)
    I don't know what is a computer. (I what is a computer among these objects?)
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I don't think your second sentence works. You'll have to say, 'I don't know which (of these) is a computer.'
     

    Chasint

    Senior Member
    English - England
    ..
    I don't know what is red.

    Here is a possible context for this.

    John: Tell me what object is red in this picture
    1619433674904.png

    Mary: I don't know what's red. It's a black-and-white photo!
     
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