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Can a sentence like this:

"I don't know who the first man that made such and such thing in such and such place was,"

be grammatically correct if we don't put "was" at the end of the long phrase, that is, if we write:

"I don't know who was the first man that made such and such thing in such and such place"?

I can see in Google Books examples that in such cases the verb is often put after the wh-word, but I don't know if there is a grammar rule to support this. Some examples:

"We do not know who was the first man who ascended above a poor and humble people to become Egypt's first king ..."

"... we do not know what was the ultimate judgment of the various members of the community ..."

"I do not know who was the first to suggest a connection between the problem of free will and the breakdown ..."

"I do not know what was the date of this change in me, nor of the train of ideas ..."

"We do not know what was the primitive text from which Codex Bezae derived its Latin or its Greek ..."

"We do not know what was the practice in the days of the monarchy, but the story of Athaliah shows ..."

  • My intuition finds this awkward and wants to change it to "I don't know who was the first man to make such and such thing in such and such place." I hope someone else has the same impulse and can explain why! – kasfme Sep 12 '16 at 3:40
  • You have to not invert. – tchrist Sep 12 '16 at 3:49
  • @kasfme, thank you for the correction, perhaps you are right, I'm not a native speaker; but that part isn't important in this case, because I just wanted to put some long phrase there. – Graser Sep 12 '16 at 4:31
  • @tchrist, Why? Because what comes after the wh-word is long? I just want to understand the rule behind it. – Graser Sep 12 '16 at 4:32
  • @Graser I did not mean it to be a correction! I am new to the study of grammar don't have the knowledge to understand my own thoughts. My apologies! – kasfme Sep 12 '16 at 4:39
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The basic structure is "I don't know [who the first man [that ... ] was]"

But the long subject inside the subordinate clause may trigger extraposition, whereby it is moved behind the short VP 'was':

I don't know who was the first man that ... .

However, I would use a different extraposition, and move only the embedded relative clause:

I don't know who the first man was that ... .

  • Thanks, @Colin Fine. The deviation from the rule thus can be explained by extraposition. Should go examine extraposition in sources :) – Graser Sep 12 '16 at 11:06
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The length of the interrogative clause has no impact on the basic grammar.

I don't know [who the first man that made such and such thing in such and such place was].

The bracketed expression is a subordinate interrogative clause. Such clauses are introduced by an interrogative word such as "who", "which", "what" etc. and normally no inversion takes place, so the verb "was" occurs at the end of the clause in its basic position after the subject. Now compare the main clause equivalent:

Who was the first man that made such and such thing in such and such place?

Notice that the placement of the interrogative word “who” in initial position has triggered subject-auxiliary inversion with the verb now appearing before the subject, unlike in the subordinate clause where no inversion occurred.

The meaning of the sentence containing the subordinate interrogative is: "I don't know the answer to the question 'Who was the first man that made such and such thing in such and such place"'.

I can't account for the non-standard examples you cited. I wouldn't say that they are ungrammatical, and the meanings are clear, but they do deviate from the normal formulation of subordinate interrogatives.

  • So the rule remains the same in the cited examples also, though it's not a big deal if inversion occurs. Thanks, @BillJ. – Graser Sep 12 '16 at 11:02

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