Questions – direct and indirect

A reader asked about these two sentences:

* Analyze three situations to determine what the unacceptable behavior is and what the next steps are.

* Analyze three situations to determine what is the unacceptable behavior and what are the next steps.

The reader wondered why the first seemed correct to one person while the second seemed correct to another. The reader wanted to know which was right.

I had to do some research before I felt confident about answering the question. The answer lies in word order. These sentences have indirect questions in the “what” clauses. If they were phrased as direct questions, we would use verb-subject (V-S) order: What is the acceptable behavior? What are the next steps? But in a clause built on an indirect question, we use subject-verb (S-V) order: What the acceptable behavior is … What the next steps are.

English speakers and writers prefer S-V word order in an indirect question.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.