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Hello everyone and thank you for your consideration. I am a professional English teacher and I usually can find answers for every grammar question, but I have one student that is very good at coming up with questions to stump me. I believe I'm on the right track with this one, but I would really appreciate some confirmation.

The question is the difference between these two:

  1. May I know what your name is?

  2. May I know what is in your hand?

I've already searched and read multiple posts here, including this one: "I'm not sure what the right way is"

I've already explored the basic sentence with the student (May I know 'something') and that there is an embedded phrase/clause in the object. Is the answer simply that the first example has an embedded phrase and the second has an embedded clause?

I also explored with them the difference between

  1. May I know what your hand is? (Imagine a game of cards)
  2. May I know what is in your hand?

In the embedded phrase/clause, it definitely seems to be a matter of whether there is a noun phrase ("your hand") or any other kind of word/phrase (like the prepositional phrase "in your hand," an adjective, verb, etc.). Am I on the right track?

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    No, they are both embedded clauses. The first inquires about your name, the second about the contents of your hand.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 11:44
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    (cont) The word what occurs at the very beginning because of the rule that says that the wh- word should appear at the front. If the wh-word 'moves' to the front we get subject auxiliary inversion. In the second example, the subject is the word "what". It occurs at the beginning already by virtue of being the subject as in a normal sentence. This co-incides with the wh-word first rule. There is no subject auxiliary inversion. However, in embedded interrogatives such as (1), subject auxiliay inversion is not allowed and so the subject occurs before the verb is, just like in (2). Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 21:57
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    The corresponding main clause of the OP's subordinate one can only be "What is your name?", where "what" can be interpreted as subject or PC depending on whether it is derived from "X is your name" or "Your name is X".
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 29, 2022 at 14:34
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    @Billj But the corresponding main clause cannot have “your name” as a PC, because in that case the subordinate one it corresponds to would likewise be “what is your name” because it would follow the same subject copula PC order! Commented Jul 29, 2022 at 16:27
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    @BillJ Hmm. I'm saying that the main clause S-V-PC can only have the subordinate clause version S-V-PC. If there's no SAI in the main clause, there can't be in the subordinate one. No? Commented Jul 29, 2022 at 21:27

3 Answers 3

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My initial thoughts:

1a. You wouldn't say this. While it is technically correct I don't think I have every heard the phrase "May I know..." in spoken English. I can't really think of any times you would use the phrase unless you are really stressing the situation in some way, such as in legal issues, secrets or maybe not wanting to cause terror/an attack - e.g. "may I know your name, or is that not possible at this time...?"

1b. You would instead say something like, "can I see...", "can you tell me..."

However to answer the your question if you do want to use the phrase :

2 The standard word order for questions in English is inverted:

 S+V+O/Predicate ---> interrogative(+Predicate)+Auxiliary+S+V

E.g. "I am playing football." ---> "What are you doing?"

E.g. "I am feeling happy." ---> "How are you feeling?"

But with a preposition/adverb-phrase ---> the same inversion but the PP/AP is kept at the end

E.g. "I am playing in the pool" ---> "What are you doing (in the pool)?"

E.g. I am feeling at school/this month?" ---> "How are you feeling (at school/this month)?"

3 To then move to indirect questions:

In an indirect question, there is no word order inversion, they simply start with the interrogative

E.g "What are you doing?" ---> "He wants to know what you are doing." <--- "I am playing football."

E.g. "How are you feeling?" ---> "May I know how you are feeling?" <--- "I am feeling happy."

The rule for PP and AP is the same, they stay at the end

Hope this helps

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    I disagree. Subordinate interrogatives normally have no inversion.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 11:18
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    Ah true, let me change it, the inversion is not for subordinate questions, as you say, but standard interrogatives.
    – Nmdy
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 11:25
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    "May I know" is reasonably common in spoken English, if a little formal.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 15:54
  • @Chenmunka Depends on what you mean by reasonably common. I don't think I've ever run across it in the wild.
    – user888379
    Commented Jul 29, 2022 at 19:22
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[1] May I know [what your name is]?

[2] May I know [what is in your hand]?

In both examples the bracketed elements are subordinate interrogative clauses (embedded questions) functioning as complement of "know".

Internally, there is no subj-aux inversion in either example. in [1] the NP "your name" is subject and the pronoun "what" is complement. In [2] the pronoun "what" is subject and the PP "in your hand" is complement.

The meanings are, respectively:

"May I know the answer to the question 'What is your name?'"

"May I know the answer to the question 'What is in your hand?'"

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  • Why the downvote?
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 11:15
  • Certainly not from me as your post is, of course, factually impeccable. I think, though, that the OP's concern is the (apparently )different phrase order of the two clauses. I understand that this is implied by your answer, but I'm not sure that it's clear for those readers who aren't grammar aficionados. In fact it might be even more confusing because the phrase order in the two main clause interrogatives that you give superficially seems identical (which may in fact be the source of OP's confusion. They both have the superficial order "What" plus "be" plus "X phrase:" Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 21:59
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In both your examples, you have embedded clauses. I think the difference lies in the function of what. In the first sentence it is not the subject but the predicative complement of the verb of the embedded clause, as I was kindly shown in the comments, whereas in the second it is the subject of the embedded clause.

Quoting the Collins COBUILD English Usage, FreeDictionary says

When you use what as a pronoun, it can be the subject, object, or complement of a verb. It can also be the object of a preposition.

  • What happened to the crew? [subject]
  • What is your name? [predicative complement]

In the sentence

May I know what your name is?

what is the predicative complement of is, and name is the subject of is.

Whereas in

May I know what is in your hand?

what functions as subject. So it is natural that in the embedded clause [what is in your hand], the subject what should be followed by its verb is and then by the complement in your hand.

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  • It's certainly nothing to do with "may I know", and everything to do with "what": "He told me what was in his hand" vs "He told me what his name was".
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 11:10
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    In "May I know [what your name is]?", the subject of the interrogative is "your name" and "what" is predicative complement.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 11:38
  • @BillJ That's also where my research got me to!
    – fev
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 11:43

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