What are 'Wh- Words' in Grammar?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Reporter asking Wh questions
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In English grammar, a "wh- word" is one of the function words used to begin a wh- question: what, who, whom, whose, which, when, where, why, and howWh- words can appear in both direct questions and indirect questions, and they are used to begin wh-clauses. In most varieties of English, the wh- words are used as relative pronounsWh- words are also known as interrogatives, question words, wh- pronouns, and fused relatives.

List of Wh- Words by Parts of Speech

Linguists Mark Lester and Larry Beason say that wh- words are "unique among flag words in that they belong to different parts of speech." They cite the following examples as the most common wh- words classified by parts of speech. (Note that many of wh- words can be compounded with -ever.)

Nouns

  • what, whatever
  • who, whoever
  • whom, whomever


Adjectives

  • whose
  • which, whichever


Adverbs

  • when, whenever
  • where, wherever
  • why
  • how, however

While how and however don't actually begin with wh-, Lester and Beason say that these two words should be "treated as honorary members of the wh- family."

Wh- Ever Words

There's a separate class of words that resemble wh- words because they're constructed from wh- words with the addition of the suffix -ever. These include: whoever, whichever, wherever, whenever, and however. Nominal relative clauses and universal conditional clauses begin with such wh- words, for example: Wherever you go, you're sure to have a good time.

Wh- Words in Noun Clauses

Wh- words that are the nouns inside a noun clause can function in any of the standard four noun roles: subject, object of verb, object of preposition, and predicate nominative. Wh- words that are adverbs function in the standard adverb roles of denoting time, place, manner, and reason. Lester cites the following examples, noting that "all the noun clauses play the same external role of subject of the verb in the main sentence."

Wh- words used as nouns inside wh- clauses:

  • Subject: Whoever finishes first wins the prize.
  • Object of verb: Whatever I said must have been a mistake.
  • Object of preposition: What they agreed to is okay with me.
  • Predicate nominative: Who they were is still unknown.

Wh- words used as adverbs inside wh- clauses:

  • Adverb of time: When you called was not a good time for me.
  • Adverb of place: Where you work is very important.
  • Adverb of manner: How you use your leisure time tells a lot about you.
  • Adverb of reason: Why they said that remains a complete mystery to us.

"It is important to understand that noun clauses beginning with wh- words that are adverbs are just as much noun clauses as noun clauses beginning with wh- words that are nouns," Lester explains.
 

Wh- Words Indicating Movement

"From the earliest days, transformational grammarians postulated that a wh- interrogative sentence is derived by a movement rule from a deep structure resembling that of the corresponding declarative. So, for example, and disregarding the inversion and the appearance of a form of do, a sentence like What did Bertie give—to Catherine? would be derived from a deep structure of the form Bertie gave wh- to Catherine (the dash in the derived sentence indicates the site from which the wh- word has been extracted). Wh- movement can also extract wh- words from within embedded sentences, and apparently from an unlimited depth: What did Albert say Bertie gave—to Catherine?, What did Zeno declare that Albert had said that Bertie gave–to Catherine? and so forth. The rule is, however, not entirely unconstrained. For example, if the constituent sentence is itself interrogative, then extraction cannot take place: Albert asked whether Bertie gave a book to Catherine, but not *What did Albert ask whether Bertie gave—to Catherine?"—From "Generative Grammar" by E. Keith Brown

Sources

  • Lester, Mark; Beason, Larry. "The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage." McGraw-Hill. 2005
  • Leech, Geoffrey N. "A Glossary of English Grammar." Edinburgh University Press. 2006
  • Lester, Mark. "McGraw-Hill's Essential ESL Grammar." McGraw-Hill. 2008
  • Brown, E. Keith. "Generative Grammar." "The Linguistics Encyclopedia, Second Edition." Editor: Malmkjaer, Kirsten. ​ Routledge. 2002