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I know that the following sentences are correct:

  1. This is a photograph of me.
  2. This is a photograph of my Brother.
  3. This is a photograph of my new car.

But can I use this as a question? e.g.:

  • Can you tell what this photograph is of?
  • Do you know what there photographs are of?

For some reason, it sounds weird to me, but I can't explain why! Is it just me, or it this sentence just wrong?

  • You may want to consider these alternatives: Whose is this photograph?, Who is this, in this photo?, Could you tell me who this is, in this photo? – Damkerng T. Jun 14 '15 at 13:28
  • there or their? – user6951 Jun 14 '15 at 13:42
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    @DamkerngT Whose is this photograph? asks to whom does this photograph belong? as far as everyday American English usage goes. Is this a photograph of me? does not equal Is this a photograph of mine? (no matter who's in the photo). – user6951 Jun 14 '15 at 14:07
  • @pazzo Exactly my thought, which is why I hastily added Who is this, in this photo? – Damkerng T. Jun 14 '15 at 14:11
  • Even more weird: What this photograph is of is of my brother. – user6951 Jun 14 '15 at 14:16
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The question sentence

Can you tell me what this photograph is of?

is correct, and it represents natural spoken English. You might say it when you are looking at a photograph and you have some curiosity (or doubt) about what the photo depicts.

The sentence

Do you know what their photographs are of?

is correct, and it represents natural spoken English.

One example of a sentence of this type would be this: two friends, call them Elaine and Jerry, have been invited by a couple to view their photos. Jerry and Elaine really don't want to go, and one of them asks

Do we even know what their photographs are of? Because if they are of their baby, there is no way I am going. I've seen their baby twice already and that is more than enough for me.

The reason the questions may sound weird have nothing to do with their ending in a preposition. Indeed, the Oxford Dictionary Online has a short article about Ending sentences with prepositions and explains how natural it is to do so.

The reason the sentences (both question and non-question ones) sound weird is because of is/are of. We are used to these when they are spread apart. For example, in such such sentences as Little boys are made of... and in the question form What are little boys made of?

It is when a sentence or phrase ends in is/are of (side-by-side) that it sounds weird. Because there are not many expressions that require this combination. But your examples regarding photographs is one time it is used. It sounds weird to you because you aren't used to it.

I pointed out in a comment that

What this photograph is of is of my brother.

This sounds even weirder, because it contains two instances of is/are of in a row. (Note that the sentence does not end with a preposition.)

Compare

My photograph is of a skyscraper.

with

My research paper is about a skyscraper.

Does the is about sentence strike you as weird? If your answer is no, it's because you have encountered is about a lot more times than you have is of.

Last, the two questions:

What is your research paper about?

What skyscraper is your research paper about?

are also perfectly natural question constructions.

  • when you say represents natural spoken English, do you mean it's safe to use in any context / style / audience ? (e.g in informal writing) – yannicuLar Jun 15 '15 at 1:12
  • I define "natural spoken English" as the kind of English that native speakers say and write 90-95% of the time. The only times I might consider rewording such sentences are when I feel constrained by audience expectations. If I am taking to my boss and he happens to hate sentences that end with prepositions (even though he himself probably says them all the time), I may try to rearrange the sentence so that I can get that raise (increased amount of pay) at work. Likewise, I may have to change from natural English to please a teacher, a test, or an editor. But since your question is (continued) – user6951 Jun 15 '15 at 2:47
  • not chiefly about preposition placement but about the sentences regarding photograph(s) is/are of, I won't go into more detail here. I can point you (again) to Is it correct to end a sentence with a preposition?. But yes, by "natural spoken English" that also includes informal or everyday writing. And you always have this website (as well as the Oxford Dictionary--and other style guides, whose links you can find beginning with the above question) to direct people to if they challenge your usage. – user6951 Jun 15 '15 at 3:00
  • I also suggest that you wait at least 2-3 days before accepting an answer. See: Not so fast! (When should I accept my answer?). You asked the question on a Sunday, when many people are not doing their normal routine. One way to get more answers to your question is not to accept one so quickly. – user6951 Jun 15 '15 at 3:13
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The sentences are grammatically incorrect because you cannot end a sentence with a prepositional phrase "of".

Instead you might say: "Who is in this photo?" "Is this a photo of my brother"?

Or if it's not a person, "What is in this photograph?"

As pazzo has brought to my attention, it is disputed whether ending a sentence with a preposition is proper. I advise you to not end with one, but it is certainly not unnatural if you choose to do so.

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    The first sentence of this answer presents an outdated and never valid viewpoint. See Is it correct to end a sentence with a preposition?, including the link to ELU's When is it appropriate to end a sentence with a preposition? – user6951 Jun 14 '15 at 14:48
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    What are little girls made of? was a poster hanging in my kindergarten class decades ago. – user6951 Jun 14 '15 at 14:54
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    So Jake you just contradicted your answer by admitting in the comments that it's not incorrect, but rather unadvised because it's controversial. Maybe an edit to clarify the situation would be worthwhile? Comments are considered temporary, and can be deleted with no revision history. I realize that you added notes about @pazzo's comments, but your initial statement is very strong. – ColleenV parted ways Jun 14 '15 at 15:50
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    @Jake I can be many things, including rude. But your interpretation that I am trying to persuade the OP to accept my answer is as misguided as your statement that it is ungrammatical to end a sentence in a preposition. I would, however, consider posting the link to the meta post about not accepting an answer too quickly. If I did that, I wouldn't post it here, but as a comment to the question post. – user6951 Jun 14 '15 at 19:04
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    Ugh. This shows why I often exort newer users to wait before accepting an answer. The opening sentence here is one of the most trite pieces of misguided advice I've seen on ELL. RE: For example, "I'm going to the store after." After what? When? The sentence is ambiguous. It's not ambiguous because it ends with a preposition, it's ambiguous because it doesn't have the full context. Consider: What are you doing after the movie? Answer: I'm going to the store after. Next we'll be told we can't start a sentence with a conjunction. *Sigh*. – J.R. Jun 14 '15 at 22:46

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