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I'm reading the C++ boost library and the following sentence drew my attention:

Once the two steps have been successfully completed, the process can start writing to and reading from the address space to send to and receive data from other processes. Now, let's see how can we do this using Boost.Interprocess.

Here's the source page.

I assume the sentence in bold should be written as let's see how we can do this. Has the original sentence been mistakenly written by a person(e.g., a non-native speaker) or was this reversed order intended to emphasize something?

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I would guess this was the intent, then the writer changed their mind midway through the sentence (I do it way too often..): Now let's see, how can we do this using Boost.Interprocess? –  Izkata Nov 29 '11 at 21:37
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4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

You are right. The correct sentence would be

Now let's see how we can do this.

The incorrect form you've read demonstrates a fairly common English mistake among non-native speakers, especially those whose native language allows for omission of the subject pronoun (such as the Romance languages).

The confusion arises from three points:

  • In a question, the word order would be "can we", whereas in a sentence or noun phrase, the order would be "we can", so the speaker/writer must remember which order to use in which case. It is an easy mistake to make as a non-native speaker.
  • This noun phrase (the object of the verb "see"), includes the word "how", which is a question word. This can cause some confusion unless the speaker/writer takes a moment to consider that this is, in fact, not a question.
  • In some languages, the subject pronoun "we" would not be used explicitly in either the question or statement form. Example (Spanish, no special characters):

    ..donde podemos encontrar el perro... ("where we can find the dog")
    ¿Donde podemos encontrar el perro? ("Where can we find the dog?")

    where the only difference is that one is written as a question.

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Actually, Spanish would use inversion in the indicative for such clauses. For example, No sé dónde está el límite pero sí sé dónde no está. –  tchrist Mar 6 '13 at 16:35
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@tchrist Have I contradicted that? Do I need to correct something in my answer? –  Jim Mar 6 '13 at 17:13
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Embedded questions normally don't allow Subject-Auxiliary inversion, though it's required for normal questions:

  • How can we do this? (Aux can and Su we are inverted)
  • *How we can do this? (No inversion; ungrammatical)

However, in spoken English (which is similar to the chatty, informal style used in many computer books), an embedded question complement can optionally invert the subject and the first auxiliary verb, like a regular question does.

  • I wonder how we can do this. (No inversion; normal for embedded Q)
  • I wonder how can we do this? (Su-Aux inverted; marked pragmatically)

There's a pragmatic distinction between the two forms, with and without the inversion. The presenting construction -- the one that resembles a real question -- is in fact intended to operate like a real question, and thus invite an answer from the addressee, rather than being intended to be interpreted as a simple rhetorical question.

For that reason, it's often encountered punctuated like a question; and sometimes a comma intonation -- or even a semicolon -- dashes in to separate the clauses.

  • I wonder, how can we do this?
  • I wonder -- how can we do this?

Now, this particular instance is in a piece of writing, where any question the author asks has to be rhetorical, after all, so this usage in this context probably is meant simply to increase the chumminess of the Boost.Interprocess salesman's pitch. If you're interested, there's an extensive literature on such syntactic marking in Pragmatics; the key term is "indirect question".

Executive Summary:

  • I wouldn't worry about this (unless I were being paid to edit it for an ESL textbook).
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High school students would worry about this though. –  Terry Li Nov 29 '11 at 18:39
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+1 for being the only answer that doesn't claim the inversion is "invalid". It's just a bit unusual - but I don't think it's really increasing the "chumminess" of the product under discussion (Boost, here). It's more about adding intimacy/immediacy to the presentation. The sequence "how can we" tends to draw the reader/listener in to become an active participant in discovering the solution, rather than sitting back and being told. –  FumbleFingers Nov 29 '11 at 22:27
    
@FumbleFingers Great comment! That's essentially what I've learnt from raising this question. –  Terry Li Nov 29 '11 at 22:37
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@Terry LiYifeng: Well, you do ask some pretty incisive questions here, and I think it's misleading to answer this one by just saying "...see how we can..." is the standard format. That is true, but it doesn't mean your writer was illiterate - IMHO he's actually being quite creative and fluent, in context. –  FumbleFingers Nov 29 '11 at 22:51
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+1. It's hard to dispute the author of Using Computers in Linguistics's linguistic analysis of an API manual. :-) –  ruakh Nov 30 '11 at 1:52
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The sentence should be written as

Now, let's see how we can do this.

Alternatively you can write

Now, let's see. How can we do this?

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I'm pretty sure grammatically, let's see how can we do this is NOT correct. Since I've witnessed so many occurrences of people "mistakenly" using let's see how can we do this, I wonder if any people(even native speakers) have got used to(at least sometimes) doing that way. –  Terry Li Nov 29 '11 at 17:32
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@TerryLiYifeng: "How can we do this?" is perfectly fine grammatically. "Let's see." is also fine and often used as a way to indicate that one is pondering a problem. "Let's see. How can we do this?" poses no problems either. –  horatio Nov 29 '11 at 19:06
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@horatio: Agreed. The two sentences are fine separately. It's only when you put them together that it becomes incorrect. –  Lynn Nov 29 '11 at 19:48
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Your intuition is correct; the sentence should be:

Now, let's see how we can do this.

I share your suspicion that the page in question was written by a non-native speaker. In my experience, non-natives have a very hard time distinguishing between the grammar of questions, which trigger inversion, and relative clauses, which do not trigger inversion. The difficulty is that both types of clauses are headed by the same words (who, what, where, when, why, how), and it's easy for non-natives to develop the incorrect habit of always inverting following these words.

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Actually, how we can do this is not a relative clause; it's an embedded question complement -- a Noun clause and the direct object of see. It's embedded questions that don't trigger inversion. And relative clauses are specifically never headed by how -- instead we use that or Zero: *The way how he did it was odd. The way that he did it was odd. The way he did it was odd. –  John Lawler Nov 29 '11 at 20:56
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