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I know that to indirectly ask:

What is your name?

I should say something like:

I don't know what your name is.

But what if the subject of question is longer than "your name"? Something like:

What is the benefit of closing school when there's a flu outbreak

It just doesn't sound so good to me to indirectly ask the above question when the distance between what and is gets too long:

I don't know what the benefit of closing schools when there's a flu outbreak is.

So, I am wondering if it is Ok to ask the indirect question like this:

I don't know what is the benefit of closing schools when there's a flu outbreak.

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What's wrong with "I don't know what the benefit is of closing schools when there's a flu outbreak"? –  Robusto Jan 23 '12 at 19:56
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5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I understand your dilemma, but putting is before the benefit is not a good idea. In an indirect question, there is no subject-verb inversion:

  • Normal: you were here (subject, finite verb).

  • Direct question: she asked: "where were you?" (finite verb, subject).

  • Indirect question: she asked where you were (subject, finite verb).

In speech, you can't hear punctuation, and so only the tone at the end of the sentence (it goes up only in direct questions) and the word order differ.

There are also indirect questions embedded within direct questions:

  • Did you ask her | where she was?

Here the tone goes up because the main clause is a direct question (hence the question mark); and so word order is the only difference between the two. As a result, some people are a bit sloppy with word order in indirect questions in writing and use inversion; but this is not recommended by style books, nor by most educated speakers. But you will see it occasionally, especially in longer sentences.

In your example I agree that putting is at the end makes the sentence unwieldy. The solution would be to move is more to the front, but not before the subject:

I don't know what the benefit is of closing schools when there's a flu outbreak.

Or:

I don't know what the benefit of closing schools is when there's a flu outbreak.

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Why are there so many search results for "know what is the benefit" in Google? (make sure you search with quotation marks). There are apparently so many native speakers speaking that way! –  Meysam Jan 24 '12 at 7:32
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@Meysam: Well, as you know, most people just aren't careful writers. If you don't think that matters, then by all means use inversion in indirect questions; but your question looks polished enough for me to suspect that you do care! Googling to check whether something is considered correct by educated native speakers is extremely unreliable. Most writing on the Internet is just not high quality. Besides, who says those Google results are from native speakers? The first three hits I get are from people who don't even capitalize correctly: I see "i", and a sentence starting with "hi". –  Cerberus Jan 24 '12 at 7:50
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It's better to search Google Books. That searches text that's been properly proof-read and edited, from capable writers. –  slim Jan 24 '12 at 10:46
    
@slim: Yes, although one still sees e.g. French peculiarities arise in English books on Google Books written by Frenchmen, so even there you should always be on your guard. If you get only the names of authors that are all from the same country region in a search, the construction you searched for is suspect. –  Cerberus May 26 '13 at 12:13
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While I would not say your form is ungrammatical, I would say instead:

I don't know the benefit of closing schools when there's a flu outbreak.

To keep the "what" in play:

I don't know what the benefit of closing schools is when there's a flu outbreak.

or

I don't know what the benefit of closing schools might be when there's a flu outbreak.

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Agree with your word ordering, though I don´t know why using "might be" is 'better' -- doesn't it just depend on what you want to say? –  Neil Coffey Jan 23 '12 at 20:47
    
You are right, @NeilCoffey, "might be" is going to indicate more skepticism than "is"...I said I'd prefer it because it seems to jump out more than "is", make it clearer that there is a question there...editing.... –  JeffSahol Jan 23 '12 at 20:56
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Here's another idiomatic construction you might consider:

I don't know what benefit there is to closing schools when there's a flu outbreak.

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I have reason to be confident there are those who would actually prefer your final construction over the original because, as you point out, it stands to not diminish one's own comfort level. And in this case it appears that the construction does not technically violate any hard and fast rules of grammar (making it a perfectly delightful question). The problem with it (if to state my impression) is that the combination what is far more typically appears as the start of a question and, as such, risks confusing the reader midstream. And since your emphasis on the distance between what and is within the original construction demonstrates an overriding compulsion to ensure of clarity for the reader (or even listener), which I think is a great thing, it is for this same reason it seems you should opt for the former over the latter as something of the lesser of two evils. Alternately, if it's okay to be a bit schmaltzy, someone wrestling with this kind of thing might opt for something more along the lines of

The benefit of closing schools during a flu outbreak isn't at once apparent.

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Swan in Practical English Usage states: "When we report questions constructed with who/what/which + be + complement, be can be put before or after the complement."

On this basis:

  • I don't know what is the benefit of closing schools when there's a flu outbreak.

is acceptable, although I agree that it is preferable here to leave out what is altogether.

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I don't know what your reference is, but people who use this construction sound like non-native speakers. –  ThePopMachine Jan 23 '12 at 20:05
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The reference is to one of the most renowned grammar resources for English language learners. Following the extract I quoted above, Swan gives some examples of alternative choices, both of which he considers acceptable. Eg.: I asked what was the matter / I asked what the matter was and She wondered which was her seat / She wondered which her seat was. Google the string "know what is the benefit" and you get millions of hits, almost all of them on the first page in reported clauses. –  Shoe Jan 23 '12 at 20:43
    
@Shoe -- I think the order you mention is more acceptable when there's a notion of genuine "interrogation". In this particular example, it sounds odd. –  Neil Coffey Jan 23 '12 at 20:49
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@Neil, That's an interesting point. I am not certainly not claiming that option 2 is the best option; other commenters have suggested better ways to express the thought. My response was to the OP's direct question about whether option 2 is ok. It is still my opinion that it is. Here are three similar sentences from the first Google page: "I need to know what is the benefit of camel milk", "I still want to know what is the benefit of xfn", "I would like to know what is the benefit of keeping my money in the TSP". However, in view of the obvious community disapprobation, I shall dissent no more. –  Shoe Jan 23 '12 at 21:41
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... admittedly, #3 is the least convincing. But also note, that the three first examples you picked up are all pretty obscure and all questions by users, not some kind of edited prose. This doesn't point toward large-scale standard usage. –  ThePopMachine Jan 24 '12 at 4:44
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