What is the name of a structure that usually contains "how" or "what" and inverted word order but is not a question?

Example: "Our goal is to investigate until we know how it was done".

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    This is a free relative clause or fused relative clause. Some authorities distinguish specific uses of this construction as embedded questions. Mar 8, 2017 at 12:50
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    @StoneyB How about if it had said "whether it was done"? Mar 8, 2017 at 14:07
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    @Araucaria I've never been convinced by the distinction between free relatives and embedded questions--or for that matter bound relatives. Internally, it's exactly the same construction, regardless of its external syntactic role. Do we give different names to noun phrases when they're subjects, complements, obliques, appositives? Mar 8, 2017 at 16:30
  • @StoneyB But do they have the same internal structure? Hmmm .... Mar 8, 2017 at 16:38
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    @Araucaria Indeed they do! Here's the relevant part of Santorini's respected textbook on syntax. "The wh- relative pronoun moves to Spec(CP), and the syntactic head of the clause is a silent complementizer, just as in an indirect question."
    – eijen
    Mar 8, 2017 at 17:26

1 Answer 1


In the sentence "Our goal is to investigate until we know how it was done" the bold part is a free relative clause (nominal relative clause, a fused relative construction, an independent relative clause, or (in traditional grammar) a noun clause); a type of relative clause (that is, a word group beginning with a wh-word) that contains the antecedent within itself.

A free relative can refer to people or things, and it can function as a subject, a complement, or an object.

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