Why is there inversion in "I want to understand what is it that allows non-alcoholics to understand alkies."?

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From "The Collected Ernie Kurtz" (2008), page 120:

This is why I am so interested in the biographies of those early people: I want to understand what is it that allows non-alcoholics to understand alkies.

Why is it "what is it" and not "what it is"?

According to the so-called "Penthouse Principle", we should not invert the order of words if the clause is not a main clause.


I chanced upon the quoted sentence when I was composing an answer for this question: “I want to understand what my options are” or “I want to understand what are my options”?.

CowperKettle

Posted 2015-12-03T11:13:42.973

Reputation: 36 949

1I second you. It should be what it is...because it's not a question but a sentence. I see no question mark there. – Maulik V – 2015-12-03T11:20:45.260

@MaulikV - some would tend to disagree, and that's why I want to understand what is it (or it is?) that makes this word order felicitous. (0: Furthermore, the author of the sentence is a native English speaker.

– CowperKettle – 2015-12-03T11:22:11.410

The s-v inversion occurs in making a sentence a question. Here, that does not seem to be the case. – Maulik V – 2015-12-03T11:23:17.437

Yes, it's perfectly fine. If someone else asks me and I put the words as they are, it'd be s-v inversion with no question mark. As in - She asked me what was that. I replied, 'A microchip'. – Maulik V – 2015-12-03T11:27:15.250

2I agree that it should be "what it is" but one hears (sees) the inversion often. If I had to say what it was, I'd say it was a sort of rhetorical "audience-attention-grabbing" flourish, because in speech, the "is" in such inversions typically gets emphasized. ...I want to know, what is it that allows.... It's almost as if a question were being posed. It's halfway between a question and a statement. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-12-03T12:07:12.470

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I can't think of an instance where the first part of the sentence isn't equivalent to "I want to know the answer to this question". The way I see it, the construction is "Here is my question: (question)". As @TRomano mentioned, I think it's a way of emphasizing the question. I think it is more emphatic than the bare question, because it's partially a statement. I see it as a way to say "I REALLY want to know the answer to this question because it's a stumper". "I want to know what love is." vs. "I want to know, what IS love?"

– ColleenV – 2015-12-03T15:23:23.440

2This is a transcription of speech. Most likely, there was a pause before the question, which is usually indicated in writing with some kind (any kind) of punctuation: "I want to understand: What is it that allows non-alcoholics to understand alkies?" or "I want to understand, what is it that allows non-alcoholics to understand alkies?" or "I want to understand – what is it that allows non-alcoholics to understand alkies?" Otherwise, people will just read it as an ungrammatical sentence, because they can't hear the structure (this structure is primarily spoken rather than written). – snailplane – 2015-12-04T01:50:55.560

1The question is the main clause, and it is a question. The part before it is an introductory phrase that appears to embed it. (This is a little bit like reported speech grammatically, where a full sentence is embedded under a fragment like "He said", although this isn't actually reported speech.) – snailplane – 2015-12-04T01:53:57.417

Answers

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People ask questions when they don't know something and want to know the answer, so interrogative word order signals that.

Why do that in the middle of a sentence? There's two ways to interpret this:

  • It serves as a form of emphasis - he/she really wants to know the answer to the "question." Hearing someone say this, you'd probably hear a shift up in pitch at the words "what is it", as though one would with any question, so it wouldn't sound jarring if heard.

  • English lets you put entire clauses with complete subjects/verbs in many spots where a particular function is needed. E.g. if you need a noun somewhere, you can use a single word that's a noun, or an entire phrase. A "linker" word like that, which etc. is sometimes needed.

Martha made me reconsider my position.

That we had no means of supporting ourselves made me reconsider my position.

It may seem a little weird to "copy" an entire question with it's original form as a clause, but since all the wh- words function as such "linker" words and introduce new clauses, you can understand the temptation to do it.

I couldn't understand how he can get away with that.

I really want to understand how can he get away with that.

Look at my costume and see if you can guess what I am.

I see your costume and am trying to figure out what are you.

You can somewhat get away with stuff like this in informal speech, but if you are not careful with your intonation it will sound wrong, and you definitely can't get away with it in writing or formal speech.

LawrenceC

Posted 2015-12-03T11:13:42.973

Reputation: 31 841