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Here is a quote out of the novel "The Heiress":

"...and it would have been difficult to decide who was the most gratified of the three; certainly Helen was not the least so."

Shouldn't the correct approach be "who the most gratified of the three WAS" since it's not question form? Or there are some exceptions/laxity to the rule that I'm not aware of...

Thanks in advance!

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    The phraseology is very stiff and formal. The reason for the inversion is to place "...the most g. of the three" as close as possible to "... not the least so." I.e. not the least gratified of the three. – Hugh Apr 28 '16 at 13:11
  • But what difference does one small word make? To me it sounds even better for that close repetition of "was"... – viborrr Apr 28 '16 at 13:46
  • And to me it sounds better as written, even absent the last clause. If you were going to pose the question, you would certainly write "Who was the most gratified of the three?". Changing the order in conjunction with making it a relative clause hurts my ear. Plus, it separates subject from verb. With the last clause, on the other hand, the chosen word order presents a nice parallelism. If there was any conscious reasoning behind word order here, then I'd be inclined to guess that it was the parallelism that drove the choice, more than the proximity of "most" and "least". – PellMel Apr 28 '16 at 15:41
  • In the original word order, the stress is placed on the first was. – Lawrence Apr 8 '17 at 16:54
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In this case the proposed question is not starting with was, but who.

"...and it would have been difficult to decide (the answer to the question) who was the most gratified of the three; certainly Helen was not the least so."

secondly, "who the most gratified of the three WAS" is actually ambiguous in the context- it could be interperated as that we know the most gratified person, just that person is a stranger.

  • Can then this, too, be thought of as a form of question: It would have been difficult to decide (the answer) was John outside or inside; he certainly was not in the toilet. (?) – viborrr Apr 28 '16 at 13:36
  • PS I was always taught strict word order and can't help this being hard on the ear. Also, I don't see any ambiguity since it must be one "of the three" - can't be a stranger. – viborrr Apr 28 '16 at 13:45
  • Hmm, I see your point, am changing the first part of the answer – Orangesandlemons Apr 28 '16 at 13:48
  • no, the three may not be all known to you- imagine this- 'I saw three figures, and wondered who was the tallest of the three' vs 'I saw three figures, and wondered who the tallest of the three was' – Orangesandlemons Apr 28 '16 at 13:49
  • Okay... But again, going by how I was taught, the former stabs my ear. Also, "the three" persons are well known to the reader in the context of the book. – viborrr Apr 28 '16 at 14:06

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