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I am really having hard time on grasping the order of placing "what" word in the following sentence.

Here is the sentence which I took from textbook:

If the secondary rule defining the recognized sources of international law operates to make it possible to determine what are the primary rules, governing the actual conduct of States, what rule -presumably a tertiary rule- determines the identification of the secondary rules?

I got what implied in the sentence but I couldn't get the usage of what in that sentence. As far as I know It was supposed to be like, If the secondary rule defining the recognized sources of international law operates to make it possible to determine what the rimary rules governing the actual conduct of states are, what rule -presumably a tertiary rule- determines the identification of the secondary rules?

can anybody explain me which one is correct. if the original one-why?

Thank you in advance.

  • You're on the right lines. The expression "what are the primary rules ..." incorrectly contains subject-auxiliary inversion; it should be the uninverted "what the primary rules ... are". It's a subordinate interrogative complement clause, so the meaning of the sentence is "If the secondary rule defining the recognized sources of international law operates to make it possible to determine the answer to the question "What are the primary rules governing the actual conduct of States ...?"' – BillJ Nov 9 '16 at 16:51
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You are quite right—technically, the verb are should follow its subject the primary rules governing the actual conduct of states.

On the other hand, there are two strong reasons for the the author to invert are and its subject:

  1. The subject of the clause is very 'heavy' (that is, it has many words) and the verb is very light; in many syntactic contexts it is quite common and acceptable to postpose a heavy noun phrase so a lighter element is not overlooked.

  2. Moreover, be is an awkward verb to work with in a free relative. Ordinarily it is merely an unemphatic copula; the primary clausal stress goes on the head interrogative, representing the complement, and secondary stress on the subject. In this case, however, it looks like the verb are is the focus of the entire clause, the piece that the author wants to have the greatest emphasis:

    If the secondary rule ... makes it possible to determine what the primary rules are ...

So this is basically a stylistic choice; at worst it's a venial error. It's quite possible that the author might have found a better way to express what was intended, but without more context it's impossible to say what that better way would be.

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