• I want to know what the matter is with her.

  • I want to know what's the matter with her.

  • I want to know what's her problem.

Is "I want to know what's the matter with her" and 'what's the matter' incorrect as Cambridge dictionary suggests (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/matter). In their explanation it is suggested that the word 'matter' be replaced with 'problem' as is written in the 3rd example.

Thanks for whatever help you can provide on this.

I've read Rathony's link and agree that his link answered the question about inversion. Now my question is specifically about the correctness of using this wording and if it is correct is there a rule in its usage.

  • You can also visit here
    – user140086
    Nov 4, 2015 at 7:07
  • Rathony, neither of those are about 'what's the matter' or 'what the matter is'. They seem completely unrelated. Nov 4, 2015 at 7:24
  • 1
    Rathony, neither of those are about 'what's the matter' or 'what the matter is'. While they deal with a WH question word fronting a noun clause they do not deal with the idiomatic usage question I posed, nor do they attend to question about reversing the sentence pattern: i.e., "what's the matter" vs. "what the matter is". The other aspect as I mentioned was that grammatical textbooks have said varying degrees of correctness about its usage. Longman and Swan saying it is okay, whereas Cambridge saying it is not. Nov 4, 2015 at 7:30
  • 1
    Not a matter of cheering up. Just a matter of hoping to get help from someone so that I can finally put an end to the ambiguity of this puzzling structure. I'm not really here for a cup of tea, but I appreciate the positive encouragement. Nov 4, 2015 at 7:35
  • Rathony, the inversion was answered as you mentioned in the other link. I missed it earlier. I still want to know about whether this wording is correct and have reworded my question to make it directed that way. Sorry about being hot-blooded, just really don't want my question ignored when it's been bothering me for a while. Nov 4, 2015 at 7:43

2 Answers 2


{something/nothing} the matter with {someone/something} is an idiom. It doesn't mean only that you have a problem, issue, or "matter";

It means either "what's WRONG with you?" in an often-condescending tone, or "what seems to be bothering you? if spoken in a more compassionate tone.

The way this idiom is phrased as a question is:

  • What's the matter with [x]?

Even in an implied question, the pattern is the same: I wonder what's the matter with her.

In this latter construction, "what's the matter with her" becomes a NP and is the DO of "wonder". That is, [what's the matter with her] is taken as [that which is the matter with her]

But if you move the "is", as in your first example,

  • I want to know what the matter is with her.

this breaks the pattern of the idiom, and risks being taken literally.

As for the third example:

  • I want to know what's her problem

As WS2 hinted, "problem" is another matter altogether. To illustrate:

What's her problem?" is NOT equivalent to What's the problem with her? The first asks what she feels the problem is; the second asks why others think that she is causing a problem. And neither of these is equvalent to "What's the matter with her?

Thus, the third example is not a reasonable alternative to the first two (so let's stick to the matter at hand, and avoid problems.)

In conclusion, I'd say (notwithstanding what Oxford has to say about it) that the second example

  • I wonder what's the matter with her.

    is the clear choice (at least in speech and reported speech). It is the most accurate, unambiguous way to say it.


We may be getting confused here. Do I take it that everyone accepts John Lawler's dictum on what the matter is versus what's the matter? If so, let's forget that and concentrate on matter v problem, which incidentally are not synonyms.

Forget problem for a moment, think of matter. We use matter to ask of someone else, but we rarely use it for ourselves. We don't say:

The matter with me is that my leg hurts. We use a variety of other expressions, only one of which is problem.

  • 1
    This sentence if reworded into a secondary person would be The matter with her is that her leg hurts. This still doesn't work and would have to be reworded as "Her problem is her hurt leg." I like the idea of deliniating problem and matter based on this self directed versus outward usage, but what about this sentence, "There's nothing the matter with me." This is correct, is it not? Nov 4, 2015 at 9:38
  • 1
    @RevlisLain I agree with the things you say, but we are getting terribly bogged down with problem as though it were some sort of direct alternative, a synonym of matter. It is only one of a score of words one could use. Why not The trouble is that her leg hurts. But I agree there are various ways one can apply matter to oneself.e.g. There's something the matter with my big toe.
    – WS2
    Nov 4, 2015 at 10:13
  • I agree with you that words should not be sought as direct replacements. I agree with Rathony that a further discussion would be very interesting. I hope to see that. Nov 4, 2015 at 10:59
  • I have never said I disagreed with 'John Lawler's dictum'. My question was rhetorical. The next sentence advances my argument by beginning If so. This is a perfectly usual articulate device.
    – WS2
    Nov 4, 2015 at 11:45
  • I can't find any dictum by JL here? Where can I find it? Nov 6, 2015 at 13:16

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.