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I've seen people write a sentence like this:

  • Example A: "I'm often asked what's the story behind my work."

To me, it just seems that this reads rather poorly. I feel like it should be written as:

  • Example B: "I'm often asked what the story is behind my work."

Is there a right/wrong way here, or is this purely preference?

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2  
What about version #C: "I'm often asked what the story behind my work is." :) -- Okay, okay, maybe it's a question of parsing too. –  F.E. May 1 at 22:08
    
In informal speech and in literary works (such as fiction prose), often a subordinate interrogative clause has subject-auxiliary inversion that is common in main clauses. There's a related question on it somewhere on this site . . . (I might try to post an answer comment.) –  F.E. May 1 at 22:15
1  
Looks like you've pointed me in the direction of some great reading. Thanks! From what I've read so far, it seems like Example A is valid, albeit not necessarily ideal in terms of fluidity. –  Aaren Hofferth May 1 at 22:37
    
What's has to mean what is (in this case); the clause it begins is an embedded question complement clause. The first example has undergone subject-auxiliary inversion to get the auxiliary is next to the clause-initial what in order to contract it. Subject-auxiliary inversion only takes place in real questions, not embedded questions, except in very special circumstances. So the first one is incorrect and the second is correct. –  John Lawler May 1 at 23:21

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I've seen people write a sentence like this:

  • Example A: "I'm often asked [what is the story behind my work]."

To me, it just seems that this reads rather poorly. I feel like it should be written as:

  • Example B: "I'm often asked [what the story is behind my work]."

The difference between the two versions is that the subordinate interrogative clause might have undergone subject-auxiliary inversion in the first version (Example A), but it has not done so in the second version (Example B). (The subordinate clause is within the brackets.)

Your examples involve a subordinate interrogative content clause. If the interrogative clause had been a main clause, then, if the interrogative word is fronted then subject-auxiliary inversion is obligatory. But if the interrogative clause is a subordinate clause (as in your examples), then subject-auxilary inversion is supposedly not to be done even if there was fronting of the interrogative word. (If this had been a school class or exam, then the teachers might mark those with subject-auxiliary inversion as "incorrect".)

ASIDE: But you might want to be aware that in fiction prose (and in some informal styles of discourse), that sometimes a subordinate interrogative clause might undergo subject-auxiliary inversion. E.g. "I wanted to ask the stranger how was I to solve this with merely a flashlight and a metal spoon?" (Aside: We fiction writers tend to often do that in the belief that it keeps the reader in closer to the story of the narrative.) But doing this in a formal register would probably be seen as being a grammatical error (i.e. non-standard grammar).

Back on topic.

Your question, though, has an added complication in that for your subordinate interrogative clause(s), there are at least two possible main clause versions where the interrogative word is in situ:

  • 1.a) What is the story behind your work?

  • 1.b) The story is what behind your work?

  • 1.c) The story behind your work is what?

Corresponding versions, where each of those interrogative clauses is a subordinate clause, and the interrogative word is fronted if possible, and with no additional subject-auxiliary inversion, could be:

  • 2.a) "I'm often asked [what is the story behind my work]?"

  • 2.b) "I'm often asked [what the story is behind my work]?

  • 2.c) "I'm often asked [what the story behind my work is]?"

(Version #2.c sounds awkward to me, and it probably wouldn't be acceptable to many native English speakers.)

As you can see, version #2.a is the same as your Example A, and version #2.b is the same as your Example B. Though, I can see how many speakers might prefer your Example B version (#2.b) over Example A,

  • Example B: "I'm often asked [what the story is behind my work]."

For more info, some of it somewhat related to your question, there is the following post: http://english.stackexchange.com/a/161119/57102

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Consider that it is grammatically correct to say:

"I'm often asked: "What's the story behind my work?"

"I'm often asked: "What's the time/What time is it?"

And

"I'm often asked what the story behind my work is."

"I'm often asked what the time is."

But

"I'm often asked what's the story behind my work."

"I'm often asked what's the time."

is definitely grammatically incorrect.

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+1 The first example here is definitely the most natural sounding, but it's a quoted question and should be punctuated as such. –  gpr May 2 at 0:57

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