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I am confused about the correct order of the modal verb (should) and the pronoun (I) in the example below. Generally, I feel that the sentence is a request, which implies it is a question. Must the subject and auxiliary be inverted?

  1. Please tell me how much I should pay for this.
    or
  2. Please tell me how much should I pay for this?
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4 Answers 4

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[1] Please tell me [how much I should pay for this].

[2] Please tell me [how much should I pay for this].

The bracketed clauses are subordinate interrogatives (embedded questions) functioning as complement of "tell". Such clauses do not normally have subject-inversion, so the simple answer is that [1] is correct. The meaning can be glossed as "Please tell me the answer to the question 'How much I should pay for this?'"

The inverted construction in [2] is more characteristic of of non-standard speech. However, some varieties of English (mainly AmE) allow subordinate interrogatives with subject-auxiliary inversion in contexts of strong question orientation.

[2] may fall into this category, where it represents a blurring of the distinction between main and subordinate clauses. Nevertheless, it is still an open interrogative and is best treated as a subordinate clause, recognising that in this variety inversion does not always distinguish main from subordinate clause interrogatives.

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  • I boned up on some Pullum and apparently you are right. Besides, your answer is the only one that mentions an oddity to the general rule. So +1
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Dec 25, 2019 at 3:29
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There are two possibilities.

Please tell me how much I should pay for this.

Please tell me, how much should I pay for this?

In the first sentence, how much I should pay for this is the direct object of tell. In the second, please tell me is simply a polite way of introducing a question.

Thus the second sentence is spoken with question intonation, whereas the first one isn't.

Edit. There is some criticism of my answer in the comments. It appears to be directed not at the substance of the answer (what sentences are acceptable) but at the fact that I have identified the clause how much I should pay for this as the direct object of tell.

It may be that linguists' views have changed in recent decades on whether it is appropriate to consider that a clause can function as a "direct object" in English. I will note, however, that the grammar by Quirk (Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, p. 1050), which was authoritative when it was published in 1985, has this to say.

Subordinate wh-interrogative clauses occur in the whole range of functions available to the nominal that-clause [...]:

[...]

direct object: I can't imagine what they want with your address. [...]

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  • "How much I should pay for this" is not the direct object of "tell". It's a subordinate interrogative clause (embedded question) functioning as complement of "tell". The same applies to "how much should I pay for this" (see my answer).
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 17:13
  • @Billj I'm not an expert on grammatical terminology, but I believe it makes sense to emphasize function here. After a Google search, I can refer you to this grammar written by a linguist: public.wsu.edu/~gordonl/Grammar_Book/Chapter_7.pdf "I said that I might go. (That I might go is a finite clause acting as a direct object in a larger clause.)" A similar comment is made with regard to "I asked Suzette where Oswald had left the car."
    – Anonymous
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 17:30
  • In some traditional grammar, that is true. But modern grammar treats "that I might go" as a declarative content clause functioning as complement of "said". Direct objects are noun phrases, not clauses. See the bottom of p3 here link.
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 17:44
  • @BillJ So no clauses, declarative, interrogative or otherwise, are direct objects any more? That link points to a teaching material used by the writing center at UMD. Well, writing centers are not the most scholarly place on a university campus. They hire people who teach college students how to do academic writing (write succinctly and effectively that is). A lot of them don't have experienced editors on staff, much less linguists or grammarians. A lot of them also make sure they have on staff non-native English speakers who are good EFL teachers, to accommodate the international student body
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 17:55
  • @EddieKal Correct. In almost all cases, declarative content clauses (the kind introduced by "that") are complements. And so are subordinate interrogatives.
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 17:55
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To form a question, you need to change the order of a subject and verb in the sentence.

Is he tall?

Here, the subject is 'he' and 'is' is a verb. To form a question, it is verb-subject.

When you reverse it, it becomes a sentence.

He is tall

The order is subject and then a verb.

In your case, you are making a statement and NOT a question.

Please tell me how much I should pay for this.

"Please tell me..." makes it a normal sentence and not a question.

Had it been a question then ...

How much should I pay for this?

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  • 2
    Please forgive a couple of picky edits to an excellent answer. "When you reverse it, it becomes a declarative sentence." Or "... it becomes a statement." As for "normal sentence," who knows what's normal these days? I think you mean "a declarative sentence." Sorry, sometimes I think editing is a disease.
    – user105719
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 8:49
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It is quite simple. When you are having a conversation and you need to ask something, the subject and should change position to form questions. Therefore, "should" comes first and then the subject (In this case, it's "I").

So, The correct sentence would be:

Please tell me how much should I pay for this?

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  • Not so. In subordinate interrogatives (embedded questions) there is normally no inversion, so the usual form is the uninverted "Please tell me how much I should pay for this". See my answer for details of how the the inverted construction can occur in non-standard speech.
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 14:50

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