2

I saw this sentence in a newspaper:

The crucial question they should have asked, but it was not, was what was Gordhan's intention at the time of his decision to allow Pillay early retirement.

Do you agree with me that the third "was" is in the incorrect place, or is this acceptable? I would have thought it should be:

The crucial question they should have asked, but it was not, was what Gordhan's intention was at the time of his decision to allow Pillay early retirement.

Please explain the reason why you think my version is correct. Must indirectly quoted questions be in the passive voice? Can you please reference a source where I can learn more about this?

Here are my thoughts on the sentence structure. "The crucial question they should have asked, but it was not" is the subject, with "crucial" being an adjective, "they should have asked" being an adjectival phrase and "but it was not" being a subordinate clause to the adjectival phrase. So that can be shortened to "the question". Then "was" is the verb. Then comes the indirect quotation of the question, with "at the time of his decision to allow Pillay early retirement" being an adverbial phrase of time. So to strip the sentence down to its skeleton structure, it reads: The question was what Gordhan's intention was.

  • I don't see anything ridiculous about this sentence. Explanation: They should have asked a crucial question, but it was not asked. The question was the following one: What was Gordhan's intention at the time of his decision to allow Pillay early retirement? – SovereignSun Nov 1 '16 at 8:26
  • 1
    I agree with you. The sentence in the newspaper article has subject-auxiliary inversion, which is incorrect. It must have slipped under the editorial wire. The point is that the expression commencing with "what" is subordinate interrogative clause. Since there is normally no inversion in such clauses your second example is correct. We understand that "they didn't ask the answer to the question 'What was Gordon's intention at the time of his decision ...?"' – BillJ Nov 1 '16 at 10:11
  • The words that ought to occur in the sentence, but do not, are either “they should have asked, but did not” or “that should have been asked, but was not”. – Anton Sherwood Nov 6 '16 at 4:23
  • Would you object to “the question … was who opened the door” ? – Anton Sherwood Nov 6 '16 at 4:24
  • @AntonSherwood Yes. That sentence needs punctuation because it is in direct speech: The question was, "Who opened the door?" I think that if you want your sentence in indirect speech, you need to say: The question was who the door was opened by. That's passive voice. – ahorn Nov 6 '16 at 7:05
1

I don't agree with you about the specific example, though I think your reasoning is almost correct. It is just that there is a complicating factor. If it were not for this complication, your example would be:

"The crucial question they should have asked, but it was not, was
 what Gordhan's intention at the time of his decision to allow Pillay
 early retirement was."

But this version is problematic because its embedded clause has a very complicated subject, "Gordhan's intention at the time of his decision to allow Pillay early retirement", before a very short predicate, "was". Such sentences are hard to understand, so the heavy subject is moved to the end. That is the complication here.

I have my doubts about the "but it was not" part, but this doesn't seem related to your question.

  • I agree with your thoughts on the position of the third was. With a sentence this long, it would be better to re-phrase it, with possibly more than one sentence, so that the third was is not so far away from "intention". I would call the "at the time of his decision to allow Pillay early retirement" a subordinate phrase or averbial phrase, not a "subject". I also think "but it was not" is a bit out of place and should be "but did not", but as you say discussing that phrase would deter from the main question. – ahorn Nov 6 '16 at 10:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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