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I'm a German and our English teacher always told us not to use the German syntax in English. So here are a few examples to illustrate :

"What means this word?" -> correct : "What does that word mean?" "Have we homework" -> correct :" "Do we have homework?"

That's how I've been taught at least.

I was reading the English version of 'Game of Thrones' today and one sentence is :

"What proof have we?"

Is this sentence correct? I assume it is, since it is a published book. However, if I apply that rule I learned, this would be the correct sentence:

"What proof do we have?"

Where lies the difference?

  • 1
    "Game of Thrones" intentionally adopts some archaic sentence structures. It's probably not an ideal source for learning English sentence construction. – Hot Licks Jan 8 '15 at 16:50
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Your teacher hasn't led you too far astray, because "what proof do we have?" would also be correct, so they wouldn't have led into saying the wrong thing.

English does though sometimes use subject-verb inversion. It happens much more with auxiliaries than other verbs, and one use is in questions:

We have proof.

Have we proof?

We couldn't do that with other verbs, and so would need the do form:

We considered it.

*Considered we it.

Did we consider it?

But auxiliaries don't require this, even when the same verb is being used in a sense other than its auxiliary sense. Adding what we get "what proof have we?"

It's shorter and hence more emphatic than "what proof do we have?". It's also possible that the author's choice was influenced by the fact that earlier in English's history inversion was more common, so while this remains in modern use that may have led the writers to favour it for the work in question.

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  • +1 But Considered it we? would be fine on Dagobah. – bib Jan 8 '15 at 17:23
  • @bib I'm not sure it would. Yoda's syntax would certainly allow "Considered it we have" as a statement, but I think "Considered it have we?" would be more usual from him for the question form, but it's a long time since I've seen those films. In any case, it's not quite a case of inversion since he isn't starting from a syntax that is generally SVO. – Jon Hanna Jan 8 '15 at 17:29
  • Considered it, have we? (note the comma) sounds more like an English don, striding behind his young charges, hands clasped behind his back, challenging their analyses of a philosophical problem. – bib Jan 8 '15 at 17:50
  • @bib frankly it sounds like me in certain frames of mind, but Yoda wouldn't have the pause there. – Jon Hanna Jan 8 '15 at 18:00
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The quote is correct, but it looks dated or literary. Assuming it appears in dialogue (probably a safe assumption given you found it in a work of fiction), it indicates the speaker is using somewhat older or more formal language. This makes a certain amount of sense since Game of Thrones is (AFAIK) a fantasy series.

English usually uses Subject-Verb-Object ordering of its sentences. When this ordering is violated, the result may still be grammatical, but it will look odd to a native speaker.

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