Using Question Words That Begin With 'Wh' in English

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An example of a wh- question.

There are a number of ways you can ask a question in English, but the most common way is to use a word that begins with the letter combination "wh-." There are nine wh- question words, which are also called interrogatives. One of them, "how," is spelled differently, but it functions the same way and is thus considered a wh- question:

  • What (What do you want for dinner?)
  • Who (Who do you think will win the election?)
  • Whom (I want to know to whom I should address this letter.)
  • Whose (Whose sock is this?)
  • Which (Which of these shirts should I buy?)
  • When (When does the concert begin?)
  • Where (Where should we visit in Spain?)
  • Why (Why is the sky blue?)
  • How (How do we get there from here?)

By using one of these words to ask a question, the speaker is inferring that he or she expects a reply that is more detailed than a simple yes or no can satisfy. They imply that the subject has a range of options from which to choose or possess specific knowledge of a subject.

Using Wh- Question Words

Wh- question words are pretty easy to identify because they nearly always are found at the beginning of a sentence. This is called subject/verb inversion (or subject-auxiliary inversion), because the subjects of these sentences follow the verbs, rather than precede them. For instance:

  • What did you do at the mall? (Subject is "you")
  • Where should we go on vacation? (Subject is "we")

    As with much of English grammar, there are exceptions to this rule, such as when the subject is itself a wh- word, as in these examples:

    • When is not important; we need to decide where to go first.
    • Who left the door open?
    • What is that doing here?

    Another exception applies you're asking a question about the object of a preposition in a declarative sentence:

    • To whom is that package addressed?
    • For whom is the subject matter of this film appropriate?

    This kind of formal language, while grammatically correct, is not used often in informal conversation. But it's quite common for academic writing.

    Special Cases

    If your question is urgent or you want to follow up your first query to get more information, you can use the auxiliary verb "do" to add emphasis. For example, consider this dialogue:

    • "Where did you go on vacation?" (verb phrase: did go)
    • "We went to Mexico City."
    • "What did you do there?"  (verb phrase: did do)
    • "We visited our friends who live there."

    You must also use "do" if you're using a wh- question in the negative, including instances where the wh-word functions as the subject:

    • Who doesn't love freebies?
    • Why I didn't buy this shirt earlier is beyond me.

    Finally, remember that you can also use wh- words to ask a question by placing them at the end of a sentence, rather than at the beginning, where they're usually found:

    • You'll be visiting Spain until when?
    • Today's date is what?
    • Your wedding is being held where?

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      Nordquist, Richard. "Using Question Words That Begin With 'Wh' in English." ThoughtCo, May. 3, 2018, thoughtco.com/wh-question-grammar-1692607. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, May 3). Using Question Words That Begin With 'Wh' in English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/wh-question-grammar-1692607 Nordquist, Richard. "Using Question Words That Begin With 'Wh' in English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/wh-question-grammar-1692607 (accessed May 21, 2018).