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I was told that we don't use inversion when asking about the subject of a sentence.

I encountered these two sentences while surfing the internet.

Whose book won the prize?
Whose gloves are these?

If these are subject questions then why is there inversion in the second sentence?

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  • Where do you think the inversion is? (i.e. please highlight the inversion in your question) Why do you think the first sentence doesn't have inversion but the second sentence does?
    – CJ Dennis
    Mar 8, 2020 at 1:47

3 Answers 3

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There is no inversion in the second sentence. These gloves are whose? Is equally valid as a question.

Your answer is in the verb “to be” as opposed to the verb “to win” and all other verbs.

The webpage http://guidetogrammar.org/grammar/to_be.htm explains the two forms of the verb “to be” – your example uses the linking form.

The verb “To be” acts as a linking verb, joining the sentence subject with a subject complement or adjective complement. A linking verb provides no action to a sentence: the subject complement re-identifies the subject; the adjective complement modifies it.

The result is that the nouns/noun phrases, etc on either side of the verb to be are equal and there is no subject or object to invert: it is the interrogative that creates the question.

If I adapt the two examples from the link:

Whose professor is the Director of Online Learning? - The Director of Online Learning is whose professor?

Which/Whose/What trip to Yellowstone was fantastic?

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  • #Greybeard Just want to make sure I got you correctly. For example: How many people are there in your family? - this is an example of the interrogative question, right? Thank you once again.
    – Alexander Chlebowski
    Mar 7, 2020 at 17:01
  • @ Alexander Chlebowski Yes.
    – user81561
    Mar 7, 2020 at 17:24
  • I am so sorry to keep bothering you. But i still don't get one thing, namely if there is no subject or object to invert, why then in indirect question we say Could you tell me whose gloves these are? (switching places these are instead of are these) @Greybeard Mar 31, 2020 at 18:19
  • As I said, it concerns the verb "to be." -- we say Could you tell me whose gloves these are? but we can also say *Could you tell me whose gloves are these? * The latter places emphasis on "these",
    – user81561
    Mar 31, 2020 at 19:13
  • The last question I swear =)) Does it always work this way? I mean, for example, is it correct to say: Could you tell me what time is it? (instead of - it is) Apr 1, 2020 at 17:15
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In the first one the question word is replaced with the referent asked about without disturbing the word order:

Whose book won the prize?

His book won the prize.

The other question has a completely different structure. Here we have a linking be, so factors relevant for this construction are in play. The answer will involve a reversal of the subject and complement:

Whose gloves are these?

These are my gloves.

The subject and the complement swapped the places in the answer - instead of simply supplying "my" and saying "My gloves are these" the order has to be reversed too: "These are my gloves". This is where the sense of inversion comes from.

"My gloves are these" is a perfectly formed sentence, but it is not a possible answer to the question. (or more precisely, it would be a very unlikely reading. One would need to be extremely proud of his gloves and also very melodramatic sounding to put it that way.) The question asks not to point to a specific pair of gloves, but rather to tell something about them. (who they belong to). In general, reversing the positions of the subject and complement in the ascriptive linking construction is possible but not all that common.

"These" is a demonstrative and it obviously cannot be understood as ascribing a property to the subject "My gloves". Of course, if we replace "these" with an adjective, no role reversal in the answer will occur:

Whose gloves are the warmest?

My gloves are the warmest.

The expected and natural order in the ascriptive construction is : subject - property ascribed to the subject. "My gloves - warmest" fits the ascriptive pattern, "My gloves - these" doesn't. "These - my gloves" does.

If the question is asking to specify the subject, no reversal of roles will be required either:

Which gloves are yours?

These gloves are mine.

The question determines the kind of interpretation that the answer will receive. In writing, the sentence "These gloves are mine" in isolation can be interpreted in two ways. When spoken, the sentence stress will suggest the appropriate interpretation.

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  • Hello again, guys! I was thinking. If there was no inversion in the sentence, then why do we say Could you tell me whose house this is - not - could you tell me whose house is this( in the indirect question)? Mar 30, 2020 at 18:59
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Consider the following sentence:

(1) These are your gloves.

If we want to turn this sentence into a typical kind of question, there is indeed what is called “subject-auxiliary inversion”—the auxiliary (are) moves to a position that precedes the subject (These), as we can see below:

(2) Are these your gloves? (a yes/no question)

(3) Whose gloves are these? (a wh- question)

The subject in (1) is the pronoun These, not the nominal your gloves, so it’s These that “inverts” with the auxiliary. Maybe that’s the answer you’re looking for—the subject in (3) is not Whose gloves; it’s these.

If the subject were Whose gloves, we would have a question like this:

(4) Whose gloves are made of silk?

In this case, there is no inversion. Whether there is inversion in a wh- question like this depends on the original position of the phrase with the wh- word. If the wh- phrase was in the subject position, there is no inversion. But if it was not in the subject position and something else was there instead, there is inversion. Again, in sentence (1), it was These (not whose gloves) that was in the subject position, so there is inversion in (3). But in (4), whose gloves was in the subject position, so there is no inversion.

Notice that this has nothing to do with the auxiliary verb be, as other commenters have suggested. It’s entirely possible for there to be inversion in a question with other auxiliaries (e.g. do, did) or with modals (e.g. can, could). See (5) and (6) below, where the subject and auxiliary/modal are in bold:

(5) Whose gloves did they take?

(6) Whose gloves could she borrow?

It’s also entirely possible for there to be no inversion with be, as in (7) and (8) below, where the subject and be are in bold:

(7) Whose gloves are on the counter?

(8) Whose gloves are wet?

So, inversion doesn’t have to do with be; it’s all about the underlying structure of the sentence (specifically which phrase is in the subject position).

Edit: I wanted to include a visual that shows one way we can diagram the sentences in (3) and (8). These diagrams might not make any sense if you don’t have a background in Linguistics, but I think they are a nice way to show what exactly is moving and why we get subject-auxiliary inversion in (3) but not in (8):

Diagram of the sentences in (3) and (8)

In (3), the auxiliary are moves but the subject doesn’t, so we end up with subject-auxiliary inversion. But in (8), both the auxiliary and the subject move (because the wh- phrase is the subject), so we end up with no inversion.

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