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Consider you are asked to deliver your answer in an exam in form of a graph. Now, you want to make sure if you are right or wrong when you handing in the paper. I would say

Is that what's supposed to look like?

I searched the google for this phrase, but the number of results is not very high or conclusive. I know it's not a good idea to use google search for such a long phrase, but it just made me wonder if something is wrong with this sentence.

I know the most common way of conveying that is to say

Is it supposed to look like that?

However, I am wondering how would the first highlighted sentence above sound to a native english speaker? Also, is there anything obvious that makes it ungrammatical or idiomatic? Or it's just unidiomatic (if it is!)

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    Try "Is that what it's supposed to look like?" Perfectly idiomatic English. – Robusto Jun 12 '18 at 2:39
  • @Robusto Oh, OK, I see now, a subject is required there! That makes a lot of sense! Thanks, that's a bit tricky though! – Cardinal Jun 12 '18 at 2:41
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First, let's start with a declarative main clause:

It's supposed to look like this.

We'll turn it into a question by replacing this with what:

It's supposed to look like what?

But this sort of question is only allowed under special circumstances – for example, if you couldn't hear what someone said, or if you wanted to express incredulity at what they said.

Let's turn it into a normal question instead (an interrogative clause):

What is it supposed to look like ___?

We did two things here:

  1. We moved what to the front of the sentence, leaving behind a gap, which I've marked using an underline. Normally the gap would not be written down.
  2. We inverted the subject it with the auxiliary is.

We had to do step #2 because this was a main clause; main clause interrogatives are marked by subject–auxiliary inversion, unless the wh-phrase is part of the subject.

In your example, we have the same thing, except it's a subordinate clause:

Is that [ what it's supposed to look like ___ ] ?

Subordinate interrogatives are not marked by subject–auxiliary inversion, so the only thing we need to do here is move what to the front. The subject and auxiliary remain in their original order: it's, not is it.

Your version is the same thing, but it omits the subject it:

*Is that [ what ∅'s supposed to look like ___ ] ?

Here, the ∅ symbol indicates that something has been left out. However, there is nothing that would allow you to omit the subject here, so your example is ungrammatical.


In this answer, the * symbol indicates that a sentence is ungrammatical.

  • Thanks Snailboat, seconds after @Robusto 's comment, the discussion I had with you long time ago on the main chat room flashed on my mind. Thanks again for leaving the answer. – Cardinal Jun 12 '18 at 3:29

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