wh- word (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 how.

Wh- 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 pronouns.

Wh- words are also known as interrogatives, question words, wh- pronouns, and fused relatives.

Here are explanations from other texts:

List of Wh-words by Parts of Speech

  • "Wh- words are unique among flag words in that they belong to different parts of speech. Here are the most common wh- words classified by their parts of speech. Notice that many of the wh- words can be compounded with -ever.
    what, whatever
    who, whoever
    whom, whomever

    which, whichever

    when, whenever
    where, wherever
    how, however
    The last two words on the list, how and however, do not actually begin with wh-. We will treat them as honorary members of the wh- family."
    (Mark Lester and Larry Beason, The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage. McGraw-Hill, 2005)

Wh-ever Word

  • "A member of a class of words which resemble wh- words, from which they are derived by the addition of the suffix -ever: whoever, whichever, wherever, whenever, however and so on. wh-ever words begin nominal relative clauses and universal conditional clauses: Wherever you go, you'll have a ball." (Geoffrey N. Leech, A Glossary of English Grammar. Edinburgh University Press, 2006)

    Wh- Words in Noun Clauses

      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 OK 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."
      (Mark Lester, McGraw-Hill's Essential ESL Grammar. McGraw-Hill, 2008)

      Wh- 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?" (E. Keith Brown, "Generative Grammar." The Linguistics Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., ed. by Kirsten Malmkjaer. Routledge, 2002)