Author Topic: Question within a question  (Read 11096 times)

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Question within a question
« on: July 07, 2011, 01:41:46 PM »
Good day, Sir. Which between the two questions below uses the correct structure? I've always thought  number 1 is the "correct" question. I always edit the work of my authors whenever they use the second structure. But more often than not, they choose to retain their original question and "undo" my edits. They always ask for my source but I could not give them any. All I know is that my "style" is grammatically correct because the 2nd structure has two questions, like having a question within a question. Am I correct in saying this then? Thank you very much.

1. If it could talk, what do you think it would tell?
2. If it could talk, what do you think would it tell?

« Last Edit: February 01, 2014, 07:41:13 AM by Joe Carillo »

Joe Carillo

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Re: Question within a question
« Reply #1 on: July 07, 2011, 07:56:33 PM »
Your Question #1 uses the grammatically correct structure: “If it could talk, what do you think it would tell?”

That question is in the form of the so-called second conditional sentence, which is used to denote unreal—meaning impossible—or improbable situations. Evidently, the use of the pronoun “it” in that sentence indicates that the subject is not a person but an animal, say a dolphin or a whale, or perhaps an inanimate thing in the figurative sense, say a wall or a lamppost. In any case, that “it” couldn’t talk so the situation described in that sentence is unreal if not downright impossible. (I must also say that the improbable use of the pronoun “it” for that “talking” subject is one other reason why the grammar and semantics of that sentence are rather slippery.)

As we know, a conditional sentence normally contains two clauses, the condition or premise (protasis) and the consequence or conclusion (apodosis). In the case of the conditional question you presented, the components are the following:

Condition or premise: “If it could talk”
Consequence or conclusion in the indicative mood: “it would tell (something)”

However, in the sentence in question, this consequence is stated in the form of a question, “What do you think it would tell?”


Of course, the bigger question at issue here is why that form of the question is grammatically correct and this other form preferred by your authors is incorrect: “If it could talk, what do you think would it tell?”

The answer is simply this: in English, a question normally can’t be nested within another question. After a question is raised by the use of the interrogatives “what,” “who,” “why,” when,” “where,” or “how,” it’s mandatory for it to be grammatically followed by the question’s premise in the form of an indicative statement. The correct question form is therefore “What do you think it would tell?” where the question “What do you think”” is followed by the indicative “it would tell.” In contrast, in the form preferred by your authors, “What do you think would it tell?”, the question “What do you think” is followed by another interrogative, “would it tell?”—a form that runs counter to the proper form for a question.

I realize that this explanation alone may be a hard to appreciate and accept, so I’m offering this other test to demonstrate which of the two forms of that conditional question is correct—reverse the order of the condition and the consequence in that sentence.

Your version: “What do you think it would tell if it could talk?”
Your authors’ version: “What do you think would it tell if it could talk?”

This time I think it’s pretty clear that the first is not only the correct but also the better-sounding question.
« Last Edit: July 17, 2017, 07:52:55 AM by Joe Carillo »

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Re: Question within a question
« Reply #2 on: July 11, 2011, 09:45:50 AM »
Thank you very much, Sir, for the reply. It is much appreciated.
« Last Edit: February 01, 2014, 07:41:45 AM by Joe Carillo »