'Wh'-question (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

An example of a wh- question.

Wh-question is a term in generative grammar for a question that is formed with an interrogative word (what, who, whom, whose, which, when, where, why, or how) and that expects an answer other than "yes" or "no." Contrast with yes-no question

Wh-questions are marked by both a wh-word and subject/verb inversion (or subject-auxiliary inversion), except in those cases in which the subject is itself a wh-word.

Wh-questions are also known as wh-interrogatives, information questions, information-seeking questions, and content questions.

Examples and Observations

  • "Who is rich? He that is content. Who is that? Nobody."
    (Benjamin Franklin)
  • Krusty the Clown: Hey kids! Who do you love?
    Audience: Krusty!
    Krusty: How much do you love me?
    Audience: With all our hearts!
    Krusty: What would you do if I went off the air?
    Audience: We'd kill ourselves!
    ("Krusty Gets Busted," The Simpsons, 1990)
  • "Which of my many incomprehensions
    Did you bequeath me, and where did they take you?
    (W.S. Merwin, "Sire." The Second Four Books of Poems. Copper Canyon Press, 1993)
  • Narrator: What do you do?
    Tyler Durden: What do you mean?
    Narrator: What do you do for a living?
    Tyler Durden: Why? So you can pretend like you're interested?
    (Fight Club, 1999)
  • "Why do people fear death so? Because they realize, unconsciously at least, that their lives are mere parodies of what living should be."
    (Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Houghton Mifflin, 1976)
  • Hurley: How do you know how to do all that?
    Sayid: I was a military communications officer.
    Hurley: Oh yeah?
    (Lost, 2004)
  • Positioning Words in a Wh-Question
    "[C]onsider the following pair of sentences:
    (93a) John will marry someone.
    (93b) Who will John marry?
    (93b) is an example of what is called a wh-question. (Wh is short for who, when, which, where, what, and how--words that in traditional grammar are called interrogative pronouns.) An appropriate answer to a wh-question such as (93b) would be, for example, the name of an individual (and not merely 'yes' or 'no' as would be appropriate for a yes/no question). Comparing (93b) with (93a), we find two differences: (1) in (93b) the direct object (who) of the verb marry occurs to the left of the subject (John), and (2) in (93b) the auxiliary verb will occurs to the left of the subject, as it does in yes/no questions (Will John marry?), and not to the right, as in declarative sentences like (93a)."
    (Adrian Akmajian, Richard A. Demer, Ann K. Farmer, and Robert M. Harnish, Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication, 5th ed. MIT Press, 2001)
  • Who and Whom in Wh-Questions
    "Wh- questions usually begin with a wh- word, but there are exceptions. For instance when asking a question about the object of a preposition in a declarative sentence, as in (38), two possible question patterns may be used.
    (38a) You went to the concert with someone. [declarative sentence]
    (38b) Who did you go to the concert with?
    (38c) With whom did you go to the concert?
    In (38a), someone is the object of the preposition with. In (38b), we see that someone has been converted to the wh- question word who, which has been moved to the front of the sentence. However, in (38c) the preposition with has been moved to the front of the sentence along with the wh- word. The wh- word has been changed from who to whom. Both of these question forms are grammatically acceptable, but (38c) is considered by some to be more appropriate for formal or academic writing."
    (Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "'Wh'-question (Grammar)." ThoughtCo, Nov. 15, 2017, thoughtco.com/wh-question-grammar-1692607. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, November 15). 'Wh'-question (Grammar). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/wh-question-grammar-1692607 Nordquist, Richard. "'Wh'-question (Grammar)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/wh-question-grammar-1692607 (accessed March 21, 2018).