Friday, October 1, 2010

Possible Awkward Construction

I was reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh the other day, and I came across a sentence that stopped me in the middle of my reading because it felt wrong as I read it:

Ole Golly, Harriet could tell, was deliberately making her face bright and cheery because she didn't want Harriet to ask her what the matter was. (p. 108)
 (Ole Golly is the name of a character.) Everything in the sentence was fine for me until I hit the ending: "she didn't want Harriet to ask her what the matter was." On the surface, the sentence follows all the grammatical sequence of words in English nominal clauses that begin with an interrogative pronoun:

She didn't want Harriet to ask her...
what the movie was.
where the cat was.
how the book ended. 
who the intruder kidnapped. 
The typical word order for these is INTERROGATIVE PRONOUN - NOUN PHRASE (subject) - VERB. The original sentence followed that word order:

what (IntPro) the matter (NP) was (V)
So why does the sentence sound awkward to me?

It sounds awkward because of the noun phrase in the construction: the matter. It is part of an idiomized question we often use in English: What is the matter? And yet, I think it's awkward (if not ungrammatical) to use the matter in that idiom reading in a sentence: *The matter was that she left early

So while it is entirely grammatical to say she didn't want Harriet to ask her what the matter was, it takes longer for my brain to process the sentence because it apparently doesn't like having the idiomatic the matter appearing before the verb. In a language that relies so heavily on word order, something so small as having what the matter was instead of what was the matter can make a sentence sound downright awkward.


  1. My first guess would be that native English speakers are used to creating the sentence "what/where/who/etc the [noun] was" with tangible objects. all of the examples you gave included nouns that you could touch. you can touch a movie, a cat, a book, and an intruder but it is difficult to wrap one's mind around what a "matter" would look like. In lacking this mental image, the brain spends too much time trying to figure out what it wants a "matter" to be instead of focusing on the fact that it is simply a noun that Ole Golly wanted to keep from Harriet. for example, it is easy to picture the noun in the phrase, "what the creature was" because our brains perform a mental search and provide us with the first creature it can come up with. mine was the creature that pops out of the girl's stomach in Alien. but when I think about the phrase, "what the matter was," i can't pull a "matter" from my database. I think about my dog dying, my parents divorce, that one time i drove my mustang into a ditch, and a slew of other things that could be a possible "matter," always unsatisfied with the search results. this answer is probably too psychological but it's just a hypothesis. nothing really to back it up yet. just thinking out loud. anyone have thoughts? thanks. Lindsey Antonini

  2. didnt see your last paragraph there. disregard my comment and replace it with, "I totally agree with you." sorry. Lindsey