Definition and Examples of Interrogative Words in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Person in rabbit suit being interrogated by police


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In English grammar, an interrogative (pronounced in-te-ROG-a-tiv) is a word that introduces a question which can't be simply answered with yes or no. Also known as an interrogative word.

Interrogatives are sometimes called question words because of their function, or wh- words because of their most common initial letters: who (with whom and whose), what, where, when, why, . . . and how).  

A sentence that asks a question (whether or not it contains an interrogative word) is called an interrogative sentence.

From the Latin, "to ask"

Examples and Observations

  • "Interrogatives begin direct questions. In addition to signaling that a question will follow, each plays some grammatical role in the sentence that it begins. . . . Interrogatives also function to introduce indirect questions."
    (Thomas Klammer and Muriel Schulz.  Analyzing English Grammar, Allyn and Bacon, 1992)
  • "If you never change your mind, why have one?"
    (Edward de Bono, How To Have A Beautiful Mind. Random House, 2004)
  • "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?"
    (Charles De Gaulle, quoted by Ernest Mignon in Les Mots du Général de Gaulle, 1962)
  • "I've been cheated, been mistreated
    When will I be loved?"
    (Phil Everly, "When Will I Be Loved?" 1960)
  • "'What are you talking so loud for Nancy?' Caddy said.*
    "'Who, me?' Nancy said."
    (William Faulkner, "That Evening Sun Go Down." The American Mercury, 1931)
    (* Note that what for is another way of saying why.)

    "'And these last fifty thousand hours? These have been spent studying the sword?'
  • "Inigo nodded.
    "'Wherever I could find a master. Venice, Bruge, Budapest.'"
    ( William Goldman, The Princess Bride. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973)
  • "He pointed at me and said, 'that one won't stand up.' The two policemen came near me and only one spoke to me. He asked me if the driver had asked me to stand up? I said, 'yes.' He asked me why I didn't stand up. I told him I didn't think I should have to stand up. So I asked him: 'Why do you push us around?' And he told me, 'I don't know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest.'" (Rosa Parks, Rosa Parks: My Story, 2009)
  • "What is the malaise? you ask. The malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo's ghost." (Walker Percy, The Moviegoer. Knopf, 1961)

Subordinating Conjunctions and Interrogative Words

"[S]ome, but not all, subordinating conjunctions can also occur as interrogative words, e.g. when and where. Thus when is a subordinating conjunction in I was here when you came; but it is an interrogative word in When did you come? . . .
"Some exclamations begin with the words what and how, which are also interrogative words. Examples of their use in exclamations are What a lovely baby that is! and How prettily it gurgles! But these are not interrogative sentences."
(James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Moving to Why

"[N]ow that who, what, when, and where have been cheapened by overexposure on the Internet, why has gained value. It requires thought. It sometimes requires expertise. Yet it provides an element often missing in traditional journalism: an explanation. When applied to sources, . . . the why enables journalists to get beyond a simple stenographic report of who is asserting what. It enables them to move toward deeper understanding."
(Mitchell Stephens, Beyond News: The Future of Journalism. Columbia University Press, 2014)