I'm a graduate student who studies linguistics in South Korea. Now, I'm writing a final term paper about 'Sluicing' which is a kind of an ellipsis structure in English. However, I lack in English intuition to determine whether the following sentences are acceptable to English native speakers. So, I want you to share your opinion with me. Please choose which one is acceptable!

① They were firing, but at what was unclear.
② They were firing, but what at was unclear.
③ They were firing, but at what they were firing was unclear.
④ They were firing, but what they were firing at was unclear.
⑤ They were firing, but it was unclear at what.
⑥ They were firing, but it was unclear what at.
⑦ They were firing, but it was unclear at what they were firing.
⑧ They were firing, but it was unclear what they were firing at.

  • I'd say they're all "credible", but 3 / 5 are probably the most "iffy", and 2 / 6 / 8 the most "natural". – FumbleFingers Jun 14 '14 at 14:14
  • Should you be repeating 'they were firing' at all (except as the example) ? Doesn't #5 'sluice' #7 ? I mean, shouldn't they be in pairs ? – Frank Jun 14 '14 at 14:34
  • 8 and 4 sound the most natural to me. 7 sounds dreadful. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 14 '14 at 15:24
  • @Edwin: Suppose we retain the same underlying structure, but switch to "They were certainly complaining, but it wasn't obvious to who they were complaining"* (with stress as indicated). Does that one seem less "dreadful" to you? – FumbleFingers Jun 14 '14 at 20:00
  • @FF Quite acceptable. In maths and science, rules could usually be assumed to work, which is why I dropped languages before A-Level. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 14 '14 at 21:03

Although some are more 'clunky' and cumbersome than others, they are definitely all grammatical.

  • Can't argue with that. But it might be helpful if you identified which ones you think are more (or less) "clunky". And perhaps some differences in context which might steer the speaker towards or away from particular forms. – FumbleFingers Jun 14 '14 at 20:04
  • @FumbleFingers Might come back to this when I've finished the work I'm meant to be doing. I'm guessing that OP needs to know about the grammaticality judgement (ie where the sluicing is blocked or not). I'll definitely come back and put some extra info on re context, discourse old/discourse new and nucleus placement etc. But not for a wee while yet! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jun 14 '14 at 20:24
  • @FumbleFingers ...or you could answer it? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jun 14 '14 at 20:25
  • Not me mate! My position is questions like this should be on ELL, and I think I've done more than enough by formatting the originally-illegible question text, and refraining from closevoting. I don't like spending huge amounts of brainpower addressing the requirements of learners on ELU, and it's not immediately obvious to me there's much more anyone can say here other than "it's a matter of stylistic choices". But surprise me! – FumbleFingers Jun 14 '14 at 20:34

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