Reported speech (position of "was" in sentence)


I was wondering why in the following sentence "was" has to go at the end?

She asked the boy what his name was.

Franz Tapies

Posted 2015-11-19T00:32:53.203


Perhaps the people close-voting could explain why embedded questions have a different word order from that in a direct question. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-11-19T00:47:33.493


Possible duplicate of Words order when asking a question in a complex sentence (Cerberus mentions that the order ('his name was', here) is 'the regular order of subject — finite verb'

– Edwin Ashworth – 2015-11-19T01:02:21.783

@EdwinAshworth I looked at the question you posted...isn't satisfying or related. – michael_timofeev – 2015-11-19T01:53:14.600

1@michael_timofeev How isn't 'In the indirect question, you make the question subordinate to the main clause of the sentence, so that it isn't a literal question any more' related? How isn't 'and you use the regular order of subject - finite verb' an attempt at an answer? I agree; there is perhaps a better answer available, but that should be included with the original question. // This is hardly ELL. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-11-19T14:56:48.030

@michael_timofeev 6 So the question is in what environment I should do it. // So the question is where I should do it. // So the question is where I should be. // So the question is where he was. // She asked where he was // She asked the boy where he was. // She asked the boy what his name was. >> All embedded questions. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-11-19T15:52:41.167

@michael_timofeev If there had been a far better answer tracing the history of the 'non-inverted' usage with embedded questions, I wouldn't have close-voted here (though site rules seem to say that the better new answer should be amalgamated with the previous thread). I think that why one says 'I asked why you were there' rather than 'I asked why were you there' (and saying "Because it's an embedded question" is no answer; saying "Because 'you' would normally come before 'were there' " is an inadequate answer) is a very difficult question to answer properly. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-11-19T16:05:35.723

I disagree about the ethos of ELU at least; I believe it's to help more than just the single enquirer (and this includes oneself) to understand more fully and accurately how English actually works; sometimes the best answer available is 'We dont know why'. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-11-19T16:08:41.823

@michael_timofeev I wouldn't feel confident in posting an answer on this subject. I'd be having to give far too much guesswork about the history of the construction. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-11-19T16:11:59.360

McCloskey, James 1992: 'Adjunction, selection and embedded verb second.' Manuscript, Santa Cruz: University of California. might be a good starting point. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-11-19T16:18:14.447

@EdwinAshworth I found a section in one of my grammar books about this. It's basically an embedded "wh" question which follows a standard rule (no Do insertion or subject aux inversion.) The reported speech just shifts the original constituent "What is your name?" into the past tense. So "I want to know what your name is." becomes "I wanted to know what your name was." I'm having some trouble putting all of this together in a coherent a "proof" so I need to wait to get my thoughts together. To be continued, tomorrow. – michael_timofeev – 2015-11-19T17:02:35.407

That just gives the rule; that's been covered here often/ OP asks why the rule is such as it is. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-11-19T17:33:24.410

@EdwinAshworth well, the rule is the same in German, so my guess this goes back to German word order and language history. – michael_timofeev – 2015-11-20T01:19:11.520



You need "was" because it's the verb in the dependent clause.

The phrase "what his name was" is a subordinate/dependent clause. It is introduced by the relative pronoun "what" and, because all clauses have both a subject and a verb, must include a verb to complete the thought.

You can think of the semantics of the dependent clause as equivalent to: his name (subject) was (verb) "what" (predicate nominative).

As for the positioning of the verb: you could write "She asked the boy what was his name," but it is extremely forced and uncommon formation in most situations. The form that you used in your example ("...what his name was") is b far more common and accepted.

This word order is not actually as odd as it may seem. It's not that we are post-pending the verb at the end of the sentence; we are simply following standard S-V word order. The difference is that the object that completes the predicate happens to be the relative pronoun; thus, it's not that the verb is moved to the end of the sentence, but that the object following the verb is moved to the beginning of the dependent clause.


  • This is the toy that I always wanted.
  • I always wanted that.

The verb doesn't always come last:

  • He is the man whom I saw in the alley.
  • I saw (whom / the man) in the alley.


Posted 2015-11-19T00:32:53.203

Reputation: 284

You don't give the reason for the rule, which OP asks for. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-11-19T00:48:48.380

Thank you. I misread the original question; my comments about positioning were intended to be parenthetical, and in review I notice that that is the crux of the question. Will edit. – Nonnal – 2015-11-19T00:49:55.060


She asked the boy what his name was.

She asked the boy, "what is your name?

"What his name was" is an indirect question". "What is your name?" is a direct question.

The first sentence is in reported speech (indirect speech), whereas the the second sentence is in direct speech. The verb "is" in direct speech has been changed to "was"in reported speech as the reporting verb (in the direct speech) is in the past.

According to grammar, you turn the question form to the statement form in reported speech, that is, instead of the verb + subject form(was his name), you use the subject + verb form (his name was).


Posted 2015-11-19T00:32:53.203

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