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Which way is correct: "I want to understand what my options are" or "I want to understand what are my options" and why ?

Since my English still needs tons of work, this baffled me for a long time, and each time I did a quick search, but I could not find the answer. Thus, I decided to ask it here.

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I used to make (and still occasionaly make) mistakes in sentences of this sort.

The correct sentence is

I want to understand what my options are.

There's a nicely-named linguistic term: the penthouse principle.

Quoting Wikipedia,

The penthouse principle: The rules are different if you live in the penthouse. (the "penthouse" here is a clause attached to the matrix clause)

The correct word order for a question:

What are my options? (the positions of the auxiliary verb are and the subject options are inverted)

But when you put this clause in a "penthouse", atop a main clause, you do not invert the positions of the subject and the auxiliary verb:

I want to understand [what my options are]. (the positions are not inverted: the subject options comes first, then the auxiliary are)


Note that AdamV, being a native English speaker, says that

I want to understand what are my options. (incorrect)

feels like "two sentences clumped together". That's because we have subject-auxiliary inversion in "what are my options", and this is proper only when this clause is a main clause, not when it is a subordinate clause, a "penthouse atop a skyscraper".

Naturally, a native speaker would feel that "what are my options" should be a standalone clause.

  • Thanks for explanations and detailed answer. You started the logic from a question. I don't want it to be "question-like". For example "to understand what are your options, read below" , the correct and only form would be: "to understand what your options are, read below" ? I'm asking this because in my native language the correct expression would be the second one ("what are my") and is a little confusing for me – Nertan Lucian Dec 2 '15 at 14:21
  • @NertanLucian - yes, because "what your options are" is not a standalone sentence here, but is "attached" to a bigger one. – CowperKettle Dec 2 '15 at 14:22
  • Thank you. Interesting how languages have different logic. For example for me "what are" sounds logical, because in my language, the verb "are" demands something after him. – Nertan Lucian Dec 2 '15 at 14:30
  • @NertanLucian - yes, my radar also fails to see such "what are" as strange, but "penthouse principle" turned out to be quite a memorable meme for me. Look at this Ngram - subject, then the verb. – CowperKettle Dec 2 '15 at 14:33
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"I want to understand what my options are" is fine and sounds more natural to me.

This version: "I want to understand what are my options" really stands as two, so could be separated by a full stop, or possibly a semicolon. And definitely needs a question mark.

"I want to understand. What are my options?" or

"I want to understand; what are my options?"

  • 1
    Thanks for answering. Also, I don't want it to be a question. For example "to understand what are your options, read below" , the correct and only form would be: "to understand what your options are, read below" ? – Nertan Lucian Dec 2 '15 at 14:20
  • Native speakers do sometimes say this as if it were a single sentence, with no pause and no rising inflection at the end, and the question might not even end the sentence. Not formally correct, though, and there's no good way to write it. – Random832 Dec 2 '15 at 17:04
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I want to understand what my options are

Clauses like "what my options are" are often called embedded questions.  I have no idea why.  I find that label confusing and misleading.  Perhaps the concept of embedded questions makes sense in other languages, but I can't make any sense of it in English. 

Clauses like this imply questions, but they don't resemble questions because they don't directly represent questions.  The things that they represent are answers

In your example sentence, I assume that you already understand the question.  I don't imagine that you need the question explained to you.  What you want to understand is the answer. 

The standard way to form a question is through subject-auxiliary (or subject-operator) inversion.  The first (and occasionally only) word of the verb is at the beginning of the clause and usually in front of the subject.*  English uses this kind of inversion to mark the interrogative mode and sometimes the subjunctive mode.  Either way, the inversion takes the clause out of the indicative mode. 

A subordinate clause like "what my options are" uses the indicative mode.  If you can regard it as a statement of the answer, that should make perfect sense.  The indicative mode is used for statements just as the interrogative mode is used for questions. 

The example sentence is not a question and it does not contain a question.  It is a statement which references another statement.  A question is implied, but that question does not itself appear in the sentence. 

We could, if we wish, literally embed a question, and this would result in a reasonable paraphrase of the original: 

I want to understand the answer to the question "what are my options?" 

In this case, the question itself appears in the sentence and that question does use the ordinary interrogative word order. 
 

_______________ 

*  The notable exception is when the subject of the question is an interrogative pronoun. For example, "who are you?" doesn't use an "are who you?" word order.

  • Another less obscure name for the same construct is indirect question. – Federico Poloni Dec 2 '15 at 20:19
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I want to understand my options.

Clear and easy. "What" and "are" aren't needed.

  • This would fit well with the OP's actual required sentence (as it turns out): "To understand your options, read below" – AdamV Dec 4 '15 at 11:01

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