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The syntax for indirect questions is that the verb goes after the subject such as,

I am wondering what the time is.

If not asked as an indirect or embedded question, what punctuation would you use between the two clauses for the following sentence?

I am wondering what is the time.

As a native speaker used to conversational English, this sounds awkward if not incorrect to me, because I frequently use indirect questions (Microsoft Word apparently thinks so too). If I were to verbalize it as in the second example, I would put a pause between "I am wondering" and "What time is it?" My first question is – is a comma the correct punctuation for the second example? Can a hyphen also be used?

Next when sentences contain more information, indirect questions start to look and sound awkward when read. For example:

I’m trying to find what the best solution to the problem is.

As opposed to

I’m trying to find what is the best solution to the problem.

I know what you’re thinking: why not omit “what is”. Hypothetically speaking, if I wanted to state it indirectly, would it be grammatically correct or good writing to do so?

One last example, keeping in mind the same syntax:

I want to ask when a good time to call back is.

If spoken, I wouldn’t second guess it. But when I read it over and over again, it doesn’t sound right.

I appreciate any feedback and/or expert advice, as well as any reputable sources that address this specific question.


I asked this question because I had recently pointed out this syntactic error to a non-native speaker who composes work-related emails to Americans. While the type of punctuation may be negligible, I wanted to give the most appropriate alternative given the writing context.

Out of the three options, which punctuation would be most appropriate for professional emails?

Also -- would the sentence, "I was wondering, what is the time?" by definition wouldn't this be an example of a comma splice? And if you start the sentence with "I was wondering", wouldn't you have to end the sentence with a period?

I'm hoping I can pass on clear cut grammar and punctuation advice while keeping his writing natural and conversational sounding.

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You're a native speaker of English, you've thought about the issue, and you have an opinion about which alternative you prefer under what circumstances. So what definition of "grammatically correct or good writing" are you looking for, and why would you care about it? (I don't necessarily mean that question facetiously: deciding on that will help answer your real question.) –  Neil Coffey Jul 14 '11 at 1:11
    
related: english.stackexchange.com/q/55734/3690 –  Meysam Mar 8 '12 at 5:11
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3 Answers 3

The syntax you want to use doesn't sound natural to me (also a native speaker) for an indirect question. What you seem to be asking is a direct question: I'm wondering, "What is the time?"

This site gives instructions on how to make an indirect question. And this one an explanation of how embedded questions are formed.

Perhaps you could use ellipsis.

In reported speech, the ellipsis is sometimes used to represent an intentional silence, perhaps indicating irritation, dismay, shock or disgust. This definition is more known with younger, internet savvy generations.

or with a different use from the same Wiki page:

The ellipsis is one of the favorite constructions of Internet chat rooms, and it has evolved over the past ten years into a staple of text-messaging. Although an ellipsis is technically complete with three periods (...), its rise in popularity as a "trailing-off" or "silence" indicator, particularly in mid-20th century comic strip and comic book prose writing, has led to expanded uses online. It has been used in new ways online, sometimes at the end of a message "to signal that the rest of the message is forthcoming.

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You want advice? Yes, I have three suggestions for you:

  1. Don't overthink it. As Neil Coffey says, you obviously understand the issue and have thought it through. Your problem comes with thinking about it too much and giving yourself over to semantic satiation.
  2. Don't let MS Word's grammar checker boss you around. [See Item 1]
  3. Any of your examples would serve, with the possible exception of "I am wondering what is the time." You're right in thinking that without punctuation this sounds a little off, or dramatic (given that it may be seen as an example of the rhetorical device known as anastrophe. If I wished to avoid that, I might use a comma ("I am wondering, what is the time?") or a colon ("I am wondering: What is the time?").
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I am wondering what is the time.

I would use a comma, dash or colon:

I am wondering, what is the time?

I am wondering — what is the time...

I am wondering: What is the time?

They all read slightly different and I would choose between them based on which voice I think matches best.


I’m trying to find what is the best solution to the problem.

I think this does sound awkward and would try reworking as such:

What I am trying to find is the best solution to the problem.

This is what I am trying to find: The best solution to the problem.


I want to ask when a good time to call back is.

I would try something similar to:

What I want to ask is: When is a good time to call back?

I want to ask about a good time to call back.

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