I believe "I'm not sure what the right way is" is grammatically correct.

Recently I've seen too many people writing it this way:

I'm not sure what is the right way.

Is it grammatically correct as well? Maybe in a different sense? Or simply misuse by non-native speakers?


1 Answer 1


Everybody learns that What is the right way? is a Wh-Question structure. Add the intonation (which is what the question mark is for), and the context, and it's ordinary. As a question. It's formed from something like The right way is X, where the unknown X becomes what.

But as the Object Complement of a mental or communicational predicate, like know, be sure, or say, it's embedded in the sentence, rather than being the sentence. That makes it an Embedded Question (aka Headless Relative or Wh-Clause), and that's a standard complement type, with slightly different syntax from ordinary questions.

The slight difference is that the normal Question-Formation rule inverts the Subject and the first auxiliary verb

[with two caveant:

  1. be is always an auxiliary verb
  2. if there isn't an auxiliary verb, invoke Do-Support]

while an Embedded Question normally does not invert.

  • Where are they? ~ I'm not sure where they are.

But, just in case the sentence is intended by the speaker to request information (rather than to merely comment on one's mental deficiency), one way of many that this indirect request can be signalled as a question is to use the other question structure, the one that actually resembles a question, with inversion, instead of without inversion.

  • I'm not sure where are they. (means "Where are they?")

This is frequently intoned like a question instead of a statement, and punctuated with ? to mark this.

And that has become a very widespread pragmatic convention in the last 40 years or so, though it still varies locally and socially. And that's all, really. Both are correct, though they don't mean the same thing, pragmatically.

  • 2
    I think at least some people writing "I'm not sure what is the right way" are hypercorrecting because of the imagined dangling participle "rule", i.e. they don't want to end a sentence with "is".
    – Marthaª
    Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 0:28
  • 8
    I'm afraid that's true of a vast number of variant constructions. Who knows what kind of zombie rules people have been taught? The best anyone can do, I think, is point out real phenomena and how they work, with some attention to known variants. After all, we all make up our own language, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to pass as English speakers. Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 0:32
  • 1
    @JohnMLawler Very well said!
    – Terry Li
    Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 0:41
  • 4
    To me, "I'm not sure what is the right way" sounds much correct than "I'm not sure where they are", so I'm not sure the analogy is good. Maybe this is why: You stated that the question is derived from something like "The right way is X". I think that's the derivation of "I'm not sure what the right way is". However, you can also say "X is the right way", which generates "I'm not sure what is the right way" when you turn it into a question. They're both grammatical to preserve the contrast between those two possible underlying forms.
    – alcas
    Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 1:17
  • 3
    @JohnLawler But I'm not sure where are they does not sound grammatical, nor idiomatic, to me here in Britain. Nor does I'm not sure what is the right way. But I'm not sure which is the right way sounds perfectly fine.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 8:12

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