I found a sentence, "She can't decide which IS the best place for it," and I need to make sure if it's grammatically correct or not. If it's correct, then it's contradictory to the Embedded Statement rule, for example, "Tell me what his name IS," the verb placed last in this sentence, but it's placed right after the WH-Question (Which) in the first one. Thanking you in advance


Normally an embedded WH-question uses statement, not question, grammar, like your second example:

Tell me what his name is.


I don't know when it starts. (not "when does it start")

and indeed your first example would be grammatical that way:

She can't decide which the best place for it is.

But the form you have given is more comfortable. I think this is because of "heavy element extraposition": since the complement is four words long, and the verb just the little word is, they are swapped back, to leave the verb next to its subject.

Edit: I had my description wrong, referring to "subject-verb inversion", which is not what is at issue here. Thank to Sumelic for pointing this out (after two and a half years!)

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  • That's a very nice explanation. I really appreciate your kind help. But I'm still wondering which grammatical topic this goes under, so I can learn more about such uncommon inversions? – Johnny Oct 18 '15 at 23:32
  • I don't know what you mean by "which grammatical topic" - that would depend entirely on the particular treatment of grammar. The Wikipedia article I linked to, though sadly lacking in in-line references, does cite quite a few academic studies of relevance. – Colin Fine Oct 19 '15 at 17:32
  • I mean which grammatical category I can read more about so I can learn about such issues? – Johnny Oct 19 '15 at 21:05
  • Unless you mean something very general like 'syntax', I don't know what kind of thimg you mean by 'topic' or 'category'. – Colin Fine Oct 19 '15 at 22:09
  • Thanks for responding and editing! There's just one more thing I would quibble with, though: I think the complement may be different in "which the best place for it is" and "which is the best place for it". That is, I think "...which the best place for it is" may actually have which as the complement, and "the best place for it" as the subject: that's the only way that this word order makes sense to me. – herisson May 20 '18 at 19:16

There are two different factors that can cause "unusual" word order in clauses with a wh-word:

  1. Wh-fronting: usually, the wh-word comes at the start of the clause. (Sometimes other words in the phrase "move" with it: this is called "pied-piping")

  2. Subject-auxiliary inversion: in non-embedded questions where the subject is not a wh-word, we put an auxiliary before the subject (e.g. Who am I?; "am I" is AuxS word order). "Do-support" is used to provide an auxiliary if there isn't already one in the sentence (e.g. What did they do?; "did they" is AuxS word order).

    Subject-auxiliary inversion does not occur when the subject is a wh-word (e.g. "What was in the box?": the subject what comes before the auxiliary was).

    Subject-auxiliary inversion is typically not used in embedded questions (e.g. I don't know who I am, Do you know what they did?).

Your examples

In "Tell me what his name is", we have SAux order with "[his name] [is]"; the predicative complement "what" comes before this because it is a wh-word.

In "She can't decide which is the best place for it," I can think of two possible explanations for the word order in "which is the best place for it". The wh-word "which" might be understood to be the subject, in which case, we would have SAux order here. Another possibility is that "the best place for it" is understood as the subject, and we have AuxS word order. Subject-auxiliary inversion in embedded questions is not standard, but it is a feature of some dialects of English according to the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America.

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  • CGEL (p.983) says "Some varieties of English (quite widespread in the USA) allow subordinate interrogatives with subject–auxiliary inversion in contexts of strong question-orientation", and "The inverted construction is more characteristic of non-standard English, but examples are certainly found in Standard English.", and according to that research you included at the bottom, "the use of inverted word order in indirect questions, as in She asked could she go to the movies, is becoming just as much a part of informal spoken American English as indirect questions without inverted word order". – userr2684291 Aug 11 '19 at 21:42
  • How do you say something is Standard English but in some dialects only? Because gotten would be denoted with a % (it's restricted to Standard AmE), but ain't wouldn't, I don't think (you'd use a * in general (not Standard English), or a ! (not Standard English but actually occurs in some non-standard dialects)). So I don't think it's fair to say It's not standard English, but is seen in some dialects, because that, at least to me, suggests that it's non-standard. Is the way I see it at odds with how you meant it? Or that article's author? – userr2684291 Aug 11 '19 at 21:54
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    @userr2684291: The YGDP article says "In standard English, although subject-aux inversion does occur with main-clause questions, it cannot occur with embedded questions" and "*John asked what color are we [...] is unacceptable in standard English." I don't find it that meaningful to discuss whether to call something "standard"; obviously there isn't a clear line between "standard" and "non-standard" English, so different people might disagree about how to categorize some constructions/usages. – herisson Aug 11 '19 at 21:57

I'm not a native speaker but it seems both of them are correct.

Wh-questions not always have an auxiliary verb after wh, for example:

  • which dog is barking over there?
  • how many people came past?

And now compare with this:

  • whose dog is Melanie walking?
  • how many people did you see?

It depends on what are you asking about (subject or object).

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  • While what you say is right, I don't think it is germane to the question, which is about embedded questions, and questions with copula rather than full verbs. – Colin Fine Oct 18 '15 at 9:34

Simon is correct, however the sentence itself is awkward. Better would be "She cannot find the best place for it," or "She cannot find its best place."

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