Caveat: There are a great number of similar questions I have found, but none has explained this specific thing. If the answer does exist and I have overlooked it, please let me know.

So, I was under the assumption that the general rule for indirect question formation was to:

  1. convert the question to a statement,
  2. convert the unknown part to the appropriate question word, and
  3. pull that question word to the beginning.


Unknown object:

What does wasabi taste like?

  1. Wasabi tastes like [something]. (converted to statement)
  2. wasabi tastes like [what?] (replaced unknown part with appropriate interrogative)
  3. [what] wasabi tastes like (moved interrogative to beginning)

Tell me what wasabi tastes like.

Unknown subject:

Who likes koalas?

  1. [someone] likes koalas. (converted to statement)
  2. [who] likes koalas (replaced unknown part with appropriate interrogative)
  3. [who] likes koalas (moved interrogative to beginning)

Tell me who likes koalas.

If the subject is what we want to know, as in the koala example, we still do the same thing - pull out the unknown, convert it to a question word, and move it to the front - except it is already in the front, so the last step is superfluous. The formula remains the same, however.

This works for pretty much any situation as long as the main verb is not be. That's where I get confused.

Unknown... subject?

What is his name?

  1. His name is [Bob?].
  2. His name is [what?]
  3. [what] his name is

Tell me what his name is.

This, to me, is the correct indirect question. Thing is, because of the fact that be is all copulationary-wise an' all, we can often reverse the subject and complement:

What is his name?

  1. [Bob?] is his name.
  2. [what?] is his name
  3. [what] is his name

Tell me what is his name.

Now I know in speech this is probably quite common, but it sounds incorrect to me, and I would never write it. I believe (admittedly perhaps erroneously) that it is wrong. At least I think it is wronger than the first example.

So, my question: Is this 3-part rule I have been using wrong for be sentences? If so, what can I use in its place, and how can I explain it logically to my students?

Incidentally, the original question that sparked this was:

I don't know + Who is going to be our new boss?

Using the method above, this becomes:

I don't know who is going to be our new boss.

Whereas I think the more correct version would be

I don't know who our new boss is going to be.

but cannot explain why the former is incorrect.

I've looked around, and there are a few questions who come tantalizingly close but do not fully explain what I need to know:

  • 1
    I think that the rule you are applying is fine as far as it goes, but ignores the pragmatic aspect (as syntactic rules generally do). "His name is Bob" and "Bob is his name" are logically equivalent, but pragmatically very different: they are answers to the different questions "What is his name?" and "What is 'Bob' in relation to him". The two different transformations you have are embeddings of (approximately) these two different questions.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 19, 2013 at 8:28
  • @ColinFine Yeah, I should say that this is a rule I kinda cobbled together to make it easier for ESL students to have a logical process to follow. I'm sure there are exceptions, but the be thing was one I could not explain away easily without manufacturing another rule ("In BE questions, always rearrange it so the unknown is on the right." or some such). Jun 19, 2013 at 8:41
  • That's the trouble with rules of thumb: they work until they don't, and it's hard to describe in advance when they won't.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 19, 2013 at 10:23
  • 1
    @ColinFine ... and they always fail for the first time in the middle of a class, with the teacher completely unprepared... :-) Jun 19, 2013 at 14:28
  • The rule is over-rigid and not very efficient, but it's mostly right. The thing is that the phenomenon of subject-auxiliary inversion in embedded questions has been exploited to convey an actual request. If a real answer is desired, go ahead and invert the auxiliary -- use Do-support if necessary, even; otherwise, no inversion. This is developed further here. Jul 18, 2013 at 16:13

3 Answers 3


I'm having a lot of trouble seeing the problem here. The fact that you are using a verb of identity makes no difference, except to allow for another acceptable way of phrasing the sentences. (And by the way, you could construct similar reversals even in the case of transitive verbs, if you wanted to, by using the passive voice, thus: "Koalas are liked by whom?" I wouldn't recommend it, and it's a bit unusual, but it's perfectly grammatical.)

As for the specific example (the "who our boss is going to be" vs. "who is going to be our boss" problem), each version is perfectly fine, perfectly grammatical, and perfectly acceptable. They are equivalent, and each is correct.

  • If they are both equally acceptable (which I'm prepared to grant), am I just crazy, then, to think as I do that one form sounds wrong? Do you have any sense that one sounds more natural than the other? Jun 19, 2013 at 8:46
  • I question whether either sounds wrong. One form may sound more unusual, or even more 'strained', perhaps because it's heard less often. In fact, if asked which sounded 'more correct' I would have chosen the opposite to you and said that "I don't know who is going to be our new boss." sounds 'better'. Could there be a regional difference here? I'm a Brit; your profile doesn't indicate what your native form of English is.
    – TrevorD
    Jun 19, 2013 at 10:08
  • I'm British too, from Ilkley Moor baht 'at. I did however spend the latter half of my adolescence in an American school in Jamaica, so it's certainly conceivable that our difference here is regionally grounded :-) As long as there is a general consensus that both be forms are acceptable, I guess I can keep teaching the rule as it is. It's at least accurate enough to be a rule of thumb for ESL intermediate students, methinks. Cheers. Jun 19, 2013 at 14:27
  • For me, if there is a difference it's again one of focus. I don't know who is going to be our new boss sounds to me as if I know who the candidates are, whereas I don't know who out new boss is going to be doesn't have that implication.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 19, 2013 at 15:09
  • @ColinFine Very insightful! This kind of subtle variation drives me nuts when I'm writing fiction, but it matters! David, you aren't crazy; a sentence can sound wrong when most of us wouldn't consider it so. Similarly, sometimes I see a properly spelled word I know how to spell, and find myself thinking wrong. Why does it happen? I suspect there are just so many inputs (both external and physiologic) into the mental system, that these things happen seemingly of their own accord. Try to predict the path of one ping pong ball (a thought) out of a hundred dropped into a box (your brain). Jun 19, 2013 at 19:50

John M Landsberg answer is perfectly correct and it's clear the OP has accepted it. Normally I would leave alone and move on but this time, I think both John M Landsberg and the OP have veered from the original request.

"Is this 3-part rule I have been using wrong for be sentences?"

In fact David John Welsh ends his detailed question with:

Incidentally, the original question that sparked this was:

I don't know + Who is going to be our new boss?

Using the method above, this becomes:

I don't know who is going to be our new boss.

Whereas I think the more correct version would be:

I don't know who our new boss is going to be.

John M landsberg, TrevorD, and Colin Fine have all reassured the OP that both versions are grammatically correct. And that is true. But I believe they have missed something. Namely, the original questions which prompted the two different answers. Because The O.P's examples are answers, and not indirect questions.

  • Who is going to be our new boss?

  • Does anyone know who our new boss is going to be?

Only the second sentence is an indirect question where the subject, "our new boss", is followed by the verb, be. Thus, the OP's smart technique about teaching indirect questions holds up perfectly fine.

  • Both answers claim "I don't know who is going to be our new boss" is correct. Could you please explain why inversion is not compulsory in that indirect question?
    – M-b
    Nov 11, 2015 at 17:20

I found something that might help.

this would match with Colin Fine´s answer:

A: I don't know who is going to be our new boss. -different candidates are known.

B: I don't know who our new boss is going to be. -we just know that there will be a new boss.

Grammar Exchange: "Who he is," or "who is he" in noun clauses

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