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I would like to explain to a non-native girlfriend that it's correct to say "Where am I?" on its own as a question, but if you want to say "Can you guess where I am?" or "Do you know where I am?" or "I don't know where I am" then the word order is flipped around.

Although I am native I don't have any idea why this grammar is what it is, so I'd really appreciate any help explaining it.

  • To confuse the matter, you can say "here I am" to mean "I am here". – Mr Lister Apr 19 '17 at 20:40
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The subject and auxiliary verb are normally switched order in a question. This process is called a subject-auxiliary inversion. That's why the auxliary verb precedes the subject in your first example.

Where am I?(NOT where I am? )

However, when the question is embedded in a sentence(or inside another clause) this process does not occur.

Can you guess [Where I am]? (NOT Can you guess where am I?)

  • 1
    I agree. Usually, subordinate interrogative clauses can be glossed with the formula "the answer to the question". So the meaning is "Can you guess the answer to the question 'Where am I?"' – BillJ Apr 19 '17 at 8:49
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    Yes, clealy put :) +1 [I don't think you need the 'main clause' bit though.It's still true in subordinate clauses too.] – Araucaria Apr 19 '17 at 12:40
  • @AraucariaMan Ohh yes! :D If I write "or more specifically embedded in another another" in parentheses, it would be better right? – user178049 Apr 19 '17 at 12:49
  • Yes, "or inside another clause 2 would work too :) – Araucaria Apr 19 '17 at 13:01
  • The OP said he knew nothing about grammar. The virtue of this answer is its simplicity. Some of the others are over the top. – Lambie Apr 19 '17 at 19:44
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The cause lies in the different syntax of both examples:

Where am I?

This is a simple main clause which comes in the form of a question. Therefore its word order differs from that of normal positive sentences: the predicate is moved in front of the subject to mark the sentence as a question.

Positive statement: You_[Subject] are_[Predicate] here_[Prepositional Object].
Question: Where_[Question word] am_[Predicate] I_[Subject]?

Now let's come to your second example, which is yet another question. Again, let's compare it to a positive statement like above:

Positive statement: I know **where I am.
Question: Do you know where I am?

This time, we have a main clause and an (interrogative) clause, which is highlighted in bold print. As you can see, the subject-predicate-inversion to mark the question only happens in the main clause while the subordinate clause remains unchanged:

Positive statement: I_[Subject] know_[Predicate] where I am_[Object].
Question: Do_[Predicate1] you_[Subject] know_[Predicate2] where I am?_[Object]

So there you have it: Example 1 is just a main clause, which is why the word order is changed when forming a question. Example 2 is a combination of main clause and subordinate clause, so the word order only changes in the main clause to mark the sentence as a question.

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    In "I know where I am", the string "where I am" is not a relative clause, it's a subordinate interrogative clause functioning as complement of the verb "know". – BillJ Apr 19 '17 at 9:07
  • A few small niggles. "Where" is an interrogative preposition (or adverb depending on your grammar). It isn't a pronoun and it's not a relative word ('cuz it's interrogative, not relative). If you edit your post I'll give you an upvote! :D – Araucaria Apr 19 '17 at 14:07
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[1] Where am I?

[2] Do you know [where I am]?

With main clause interrogatives like [1], the interrogative phrase usually occupies initial position and, if it is not the subject, its placement triggers subject-auxiliary inversion. But in subordinate interrogative clauses like the bracketed one in [2], there is normally no inversion.

Main clause interrogatives ask questions, but subordinate interrogative clauses (embedded questions) express questions, but do not themselves ask them.

Usually (but not always) the construction can be glossed with the formula “the answer to the question”. The meaning of [2] is “Do you know the answer to the question ‘Where am I?’”

You other examples fit the same pattern as [2].

  • Prezackerly so. +1 I like the usually's you snuck in there too. – Araucaria Apr 19 '17 at 12:39
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For those who don't want a strict grammatical approach, this is how I'd explain (native English speaker to learner)

"Where am I" is a question. That's signalled by the reversal of "am" and "I".

"Can you guess [X]" is also a question, whatever [X] might be. A statement would be "You can guess [X]", without the reversal.

in "Can you guess where I am", [X] is "where I am". If I remember my grammar right, it's a noun phrase, and the object of the verb "guess" (but I'm not completely certain I do remember right ).

  • No, it's not a noun phrase as object, though I know where you're coming from. It's actually a subordinate interrogative clause (embedded question) as complement of "guess". As an NP, it would be a 'fused' relative construction in which "where" means "in/at the place where", but that wouldn't make any sense. – BillJ Apr 19 '17 at 11:16
  • how can where I am be a subordinate interrogative clause? – Lambie Apr 19 '17 at 19:50
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Where am I -> The place were you are | Where I am -> Were YOU are

They can mean the pretty much think, but they are used in differend ocasions, basicly

You can, for example say: The place were I am is beutiful; but you cant say The place were am I is beutiful;

You can say: Were am I from? And you can also say Were I am from. (but when you say this u are expected toadd more info to your phrase, like, Thats were I am from, or smthing like that)

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