Here's a list of examples I've seen:

  1. What do you think happened?
  2. Who do you think has killed him?
  3. Who do you think he killed?

How does this structure what/who do you think... work? It seems a bit odd that you've got happened after think in the first example, has killed after think in the second. In third, who and what have got nothing to do with the first clause in the sentence but with the second. Can it be used in the past and in the future? "Who did you think (had) killed him? Who do you think will call him?"

Apparently it can appear in the middle of any question when someone asks an opinion. Is that so? Are there more structures like this?

  • In the first two sentences you can remove the 'do you think' and it still makes grammatical sense: What happened? Who has killed him? The third is the odd one out. Remove the 'do you think' and it makes no sense: Who (has) he killed? I am no grammarian as many here are, but I would suggest we need to try and understand why the sub-clause 'do you think' eliminates the need for the perfect tense and allows the simple past in the third example. It would, of course, take the perfect 'Who, do you think, he has killed? I'm afraid this is a job for an Ashworth or a Fine.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 10:48
  • Some of this is a better fit for our sister site for learners of the language, or just a dupe of How do the tenses in English correspond temporally to one another? I am leaving it be for the moment mostly for the "are there more structures like this" part, which sounds interesting.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 22:15

2 Answers 2

  1. What do you think happened?

  2. Who do you think has killed him?

  3. Who do you think he killed?

Your three examples are in the form of open interrogative clauses. The interrogative word has been fronted, and when that happens, then, subject-auxiliary inversion is obligatory. Here are the corresponding alternate versions that have the interrogative word in situ:

  • 1b. You think what happened?

  • 2b. You think who has killed him?

  • 3b. You think he killed who?

And so, when the interrogative word is then moved to the front, that will cause obligatory subject-auxiliary inversion, and so, the result ends up being your examples.

As to your question:

Are there more structures like this?

One of the topics that is involved in your question is "subject-auxiliary inversion", and you can research that topic to see what types of construction can involve that. Your question might also involve "open interrogative clauses".


What do you think happened?

Simply, this question is asking a current opinion of the conversation partner. Therefore, the present tense is used for the verb "think".

What did you think happened?

In this case, you are asking a past opinion; therefore, your conversation partner may not think now the same way as this answer.

In a nutshell, tenses of the "think" and the following clause are separable.

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