Understanding the 'wh'-clause in English Grammar

what, who, which, when, where, why, how clauses


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In English grammar, a "wh"-clause is a subordinate clause that's introduced by one of the wh-words (what, who, which, when, where, why, how). Wh-clauses can function as subjects, objects, or complements.

"An important aspect of wh-clauses," notes Geoffrey Leech, "is that they require the wh-element to be placed at the beginning of the clause, even if this means changing the normal order of subject, verb, object and so on" (A Glossary of English Grammar, 2010).


Here are some examples of wh-clause from other writers:

  • "I knew that Jorge was happy, and I thought I knew what was on his mind."
    (Colm Toibin, The Story of the Night. Scribner, 1996)
  • "After the talk I went up to Father Malachy and asked him how I could obtain a scapular."
    (John Cornwell, Seminary Boy. Doubleday, 2006)
  • "She heard herself describe the girl as 'her old self,' not aware why she chose that phrase."
    (Morris Philipson, Secret Understandings. The University of Chicago Press, 1983)
  • "She couldn't decide which frightened her more--the few derricks that were still pumping or those dozens which had fallen silent."
    (Stephen King, The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass. Grant, 1997)
  • "The first successful heart transplant, in 1967, raised the question of when life ends, the question of the definition of death."
    (Allen Verhey, Religion and Medical Ethics: Looking Back, Looking Forward. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996)
  • "Spring is when the earth defrosts after months in the freezer and gives off an aroma that's as good as pizza dough rising."
    (Michael Tucker, Living in a Foreign Language: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy. Grove Press, 2007)
  • "He wondered why he had to live there alone . . .. He wondered where his friends were, where his family was. He wondered what he had done to earn himself this precarious and uncomfortable circumstance. He remembered when he was a powerful man, successful, well-regarded."
    (Frederick Barthelme, Waveland. Doubleday, 2009)
  • "'I actually had a dream about you,' I lied. Why I went there is anyone's guess."
    (Adam Rapp, The Year of Endless Sorrows. Farrar, Straus and Girous, 2007)
  • "I love you, Laura, more than I've ever told you. Whatever you decide to do is fine."
    (Joan A. Medlicott, From the Heart of Covington. St. Martin's Press, 2002)
  • "What he's done is hideous. It's why he did it that baffles me."
    (Jon Sharpe, The Trailsman: Menagerie of Malice. Signet, 2004)

Pseudo-Cleft Sentences With Wh-Clauses

"The pseudo-cleft sentence is [a] device whereby, like the cleft sentence proper, the construction can make explicit the division between given and new parts of the communication. It is essentially an SVC sentence with a nominal relative clause as subject or complement. . . .
"The pseudo-cleft sentence occurs more typically . . . with the wh-clause as subject, since it can thus present a climax in the complement:

What you need most is a good rest.

It is less restricted than the cleft sentence . . . in one respect, since, through use of the substitute verb do, it more freely permits marked focus to fall on the predication:

What he's done is (to) spoil the whole thing.
What John did to his suit was (to) ruin it.
What I'm going to do to him is (to) teach him a lesson.

In each of these, we would have an anticipatory focus on the do item, the main focus coming at the normal end-focus position."
(Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik, A Grammar of Contemporary English. Longman, 1985)

  • "[W]hat is striking is that the wh-clause of the pseudocleft anticipates (or 'projects') up-coming talk by the same speaker, and . . . FRAMES that talk in terms of such categories as event, action and paraphrase." (Paul Hopper and Sandra Thompson, "Projectability and Clause Combining in Interaction." Crosslinguistic Studies of Clause Combining: The Multifunctionality of Conjunctions., ed. by Ritva Laury. John Benjamins, 2008)

Word Order in Formal and Informal Wh-Clauses

"When the wh-word is (the first word of) a prepositional complement as in (a) [It's a complex problem, which we all have to live with], there is a choice between a formal and an informal construction. The formal construction places the preposition at the beginning of the clause, whereas the informal construction leaves it 'stranded' at the end--compare (a) with the formal equivalent: It is a problem with which we all have to live. When the wh-element is subject of the clause, no change in the normal statement order is needed: I can't remember who lives there."
(Geoffrey Leech, A Glossary of English Grammar. Edinburgh University Press, 2010)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding the 'wh'-clause in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/wh-clause-grammar-1692498. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Understanding the 'wh'-clause in English Grammar. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/wh-clause-grammar-1692498 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding the 'wh'-clause in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/wh-clause-grammar-1692498 (accessed May 31, 2023).