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I've noticed a lot of native speakers struggle to use the indirect forms, in that they stick to the incorrect inversed structure when forming a simple informative sentence. For instance, while listening to an online course on social media marketing, the lecturer would ceaselessly form his sentences as follows:

What we have to do is realise who are the customers we're trying to reach out to.

While he should've said:

What we have to do is realise who the customers we're trying to reach are.

Right?

This syntax though led me to another question: where should I put the verb in more complex sentences? If I were to state the following, should I say it as A) or rather as B)?

A) What we don't know yet is how many kids there are who regularly skip classes.

B) What we don't know yet is how many kids who regularly skip classes there are.

The bottom line is that I'm a tad worried about putting the verb so far away from the subject. But is it really wrong? Or are both options viable?

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    You will hear B but A has greater felicity, especially when the who-clause grows in length and complexity. ... how many kids who regularly skip classes, engage in alcohol binge drinking, have unprotected sex, and spend more than six hours a day on Reddit there are.
    – TimR
    Jan 8, 2018 at 16:58
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    You could also choose to eliminate there are, who and say "how many kids ... regularly skip classes..."
    – TimR
    Jan 8, 2018 at 17:01
  • Yes, that is correct. Because they are not thinking. And it's awful when journalists do it.
    – Lambie
    Oct 27, 2021 at 19:02

2 Answers 2

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In written form the sentence you quoted is indeed not grammatical:

What we have to do is realize who are the customers we're trying to reach out to.

However, you said you heard it; it is very common for a native speaker to say the following:

What we have to do is realize: "who are the customers we're trying to reach out to?"

And yes, one could argue that something is omitted:

What we have to do is realize [the following]: "who are the customers we're trying to reach out to?"

It doesn't have to be there, because it will be understood by native listeners.

Now, for your second question, A) and B) are correct, but to address your concern: you don't need to put the verb that far away! Both your sentences with indirect speech, but phrased more naturally:

What we have to do is realize who the customers are [that] we're trying to reach out to.
What we don't know yet is how many kids there are who regularly skip classes.

Note that in the first sentence, that is optional. Also, don't worry about that preposition at the end. There is no actual rule against that, and there never was.

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  • I'm aware that the guy could have structured is as if he were posing a question, but the problem is, I didn't quote him verbatim and I'm pretty positive he didn't mean to do it like that. He just kept using inversed structures which appeared odd to me. My another question is: you're saying that the B) sentence is the correct one, yet in the more naturally phrased examples what you've written is just what I did in the example A) :D
    – Bebop B.
    Jan 8, 2018 at 15:18
  • @BebopB. I had misread your A) version as without inversion, see my edit :) About how he said or meant it exactly, that is hard to judge without any reference. I only know I hear the construction I mentioned quite often when speakers try to engage the audience.
    – oerkelens
    Jan 8, 2018 at 15:48
  • Okay, a tad late to the party, but I've just come about yet another odd structure this guy has used. He said: "What I would like you to do is pause the video and perhaps jot down how many social media websites can you think of." It's clearly wrong, now isn't it?
    – Bebop B.
    Jan 10, 2018 at 10:07
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    @BebopB. In that example I cannot see a way to salvage it with interpunction, no. It might simply be the effect of the guy making up the sentence as he goes, though. I can imagine a speaker saying this with a slight pause before how many - it's grammatically wrong, and they would probably not write it down like this, but in reality, speakers tend to speak in partial sentences that, put together, don't always obey grammar as a complete sentence. If you see transcripts of Donald Trump, they are full of these kind of half sentences, and they are quite natural.
    – oerkelens
    Jan 10, 2018 at 10:59
  • Yeah, even though we can argue it was said post-haste and that's where the inconsistency comes from, the written forms that accompany the lecture can't be defended the same way. "Now let's move on and analyze which email design best practices should you follow to make your subscribers more engaged with your content." It should've been phrased as "which email design best practices you should follow", right?
    – Bebop B.
    Jan 10, 2018 at 15:24
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I hear this more and more frequently as time goes by. The way I interpret it is not as a failure to render the indirect question, but as an unmarked direct question.

What we have to figure out is, "Who are the people who are buying our products?"

We have to decide: "Where are we going to spend our money?"

I was thinking about: "What am I going to do?"

Of course, using punctuation to save it in this way may just be my copy editor's instinct, since it is of course invisible in speech, but I find that people do pause briefly before using this structure. And when they use a more conventional direct quotation tag, it doesn't strike us as nearly as bad:

I asked myself, "Why were they so mad?"

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