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I couldn't explain it in the title, my apologies. Now the sentence, in indirect-speech:

Anne asked me who my favourite actor was

I know this sentence is correct, but WHY isn't it the following?

Anne asked me who was my favourite actor

What is the grammatical explanation to the change in the verb's position? I imagined it would be easy to find an answer online, but after quite some time spent searching it, I couldn't find an answer. I hope you can help me here.

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Ask is a transitive verb: it takes a Direct Object (DO), in its simplest form a noun phrase:

Anne asked me [DO a question].

If we want to represent Anne's exact words, we use the question she actually asked, followed by a question mark and enclosed in quotes, in that DO position:

Anne asked me "Who is your favorite actor?"

The quotes mark this as a distinct constituent.

But in indirect speech, when we want to convey the substance of her question, we use a kind of relative clause (a free or fused relative clause) which can act as a nominal phrase in the DO position. This kind of clause starts with an ordinary declarative clause ... replaces the term asked for with an interrogative/relative term ... and moves that term to the front of the clause:

      your favorite actor was _______  
      your favorite actor was   who  
       v<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<^
 who  your favorite actor was

Note that the same clause can represent my answer—a situation where it cannot represent a question:

I told her who my favorite actor was.

In fact this sort of clause can act like a nominal phrase in almost any context—for example, as the object of a preposition:

She was curious about who my favorite actor was.

It can act as the Subject of a sentence:

Who my favorite actor was was the subject of her inquiry.

And in this sentence, a copulation, free relative clauses act as both Subject and Predicate Complement:

Who my favorite actor was was what she wanted to know.

  • 1
    Why is it not "who my favourite actor is"? – TrevorD May 23 '16 at 11:10
  • +1, but not sure you're completely answering the OP's question ;-) OP asks why it isn't "She asked who was my favourite actor". Consider "Who is your favourite actor?" --> "Sean Connery is my favourite actor" --->" She asked me who was my favourite actor" – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 23 '16 at 11:58
  • Sorry, but can't stop myself ... ;-) – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 23 '16 at 12:04
  • @Araucaria OP asks about the change in the verb's position and WHY isn't it just "Anne asked me who was my favourite actor"? ... looks to me like the question/embedded-question thingy. – StoneyB on hiatus May 23 '16 at 12:13
  • @TrevorD That's a different question, to which the answer is 'Either might be correct: it depends on the scope of the reporter's temporal references'. – StoneyB on hiatus May 23 '16 at 12:16
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Affirmative: that man was

Negative: that man wasn't

Interrogative: Was that man...?

Affirmative statement: Tell me who that man was.

Interrogative: (only 1 interrogative form at the beginning) Can you tell me who that man was?

Interrogative: Who was that man?

Affirmative: Anne asked me who my favourite actor was. (There's no question mark.)

Question words like who/what are not in the interrogative form in an affirmative statement, like yours. 'you are' is affirmative. 'Are you...?' would be interrogative. It's only used at the beginning: Are you trying to say he's wrong? But not in the middle : Can you tell me what you are trying to say? And not in a statement: I know what you are trying to say.

Hope this helps.

  • 1
    I don't understand what you are trying to say! – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 23 '16 at 10:28
  • @Araucaria Your sentence illustrates the grammar. Question words like who/what are not in the interrogative form in an affirmative statement, like yours. 'you are' is affirmative. 'Are you...?' would be interrogative. It's only used at the beginning: Are you trying to say he's wrong? But not in the middle : Can you tell me what you are trying to say? And not in a statement: Tell me what you are trying to say. – Cathy Gartaganis May 23 '16 at 10:38
  • Oh I get that alright. But the OP's question is surely how do you know that the original question is not a subject question. In subject questions there is never any inversion in the first place: Who shot JR? --> She asked me who shot JR. – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 23 '16 at 11:19
  • @Araucaria 'who' is followed by an interrogative form when it's the object, as in Who did you see?, and an affirmative form when it's the subject, as in Who rang? – Cathy Gartaganis May 23 '16 at 11:49
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    Hmmm, well kinda. But kinda not. You say that the imperative "Tell me who that man was" is an affirmative statement (it isn't, but that's not important right now). The implication is that the subordinate clause doesn't have interrogative syntax apart from that the wh- word being fronted, it has affirmative syntax. So, to repeat the Op's question ... Why isn't it "She asked me who was my favourite actor" <--- That subordinate clause also has affirmative syntax. Why prefer the example sentence to that one? – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 23 '16 at 12:09

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