We used to say, for example: â€œWe need to ask what the questions are.â€Â
Now we often hear instead, â€œWe need to ask what are the questions.â€Â What would be the correct punctuation for the second? This structure seems to have become pretty standard, especially in spoken speech.Â But when and why?
This graph suggests the un-inverted version has always been far more favored.
Scenic interest: note how the 3 entries crest in synch- times of turmoils, of soul searching?
I'll probably read Glenn's suggested articles, next, but until I do, I've always supposed that the inverted form is actually the older one.Â In favor of that hypothesis, I'll add that it's almost the required form in Swedish, and I presume in Danish and Norwegian too though my knowledge of them is less.
Some of you will remember James J Kilpatrick, who wrote two weekly syndicated columns in the op-ed pages.Â One was On the Courts, or maybe it was Covering the Courts, regarding USSC issues.Â The other was The Writer's Art, on grammar, punctuation and language in general (which is why I'm confident that I'm not the only one here who remembers him).Â I used to write him, on occasion, and he usually replied courteously.Â One such exchange is about the inverted question; I'll quote just this part:
I write respectfully to take exception to the court's ruling as recorded in [URL no longer extant].Â A brief quote:
Â«….Jack Carpenter of Alexandria, Va., who complains of a different "did." He cites The Washington Post: "To avert a major benefit cut, Medicare will require a significant tax increase. But Mr. Bush will not say that, any more than did Bill Clinton."
Â«"Any more than did Bill Clinton"? You ask, what kind of syntax is that? Lousy syntax, the court responds. To avoid such a clumsy construction, writers should take refuge in repetition: "Mr. Bush will not say that, any more than Bill Clinton would say that."Â»
Let's notice briefly and discard as unimportant your accidental miscorrection, which should have read "Mr. Bush will not say that, any more than Bill Clinton said it" (or else it fails to parallel the Post's original).Â My principal objection is this:Â I've never gotten the impression that "…any more than <helping verb> <subject>…" is clumsy.Â "You wouldn't have thought of it that way any more than would I" sounds fine to me, if a bit formal; likewise "my ideas on the subject aren't any more authoritative than are his".Â Mr Carpenter's putative Horrid Example is actually no more horrid than are the examples just mentioned.Â If he dislikes the slightly formal tone, he need only restore the normal subject-verb order; and even that (although it often sounds more natural) is no more CORRECT than these are.
Furthermore this allegedly clumsy construction is sometimes necessary, for example when the comparative subject takes up more than a word or two.Â Surely you would have rejected the complaint had the Washington Post written "But Mr Bush will not say that, any more than did his predecessors Bill Clinton and, in previous administrations, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon".Â Putting the verb after all that long-windedness would have obscured the meaning, and it certainly wouldn't have made it sound any more natural than the much simpler and clearer method of keeping the verb nearer the comparative "than" would.
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