interrogative pronoun

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

interrogative pronouns
The interrogative pronouns in English. (Getty Images)


In traditional English grammar, the term interrogative pronoun refers to a pronoun that introduces a question. Also called a pronominal interrogative. (Related terms include interrogative"wh"-word, and question word, although these terms are usually not defined in precisely the same way.)

In English, who, whom, whose, which, and what commonly function as interrogative pronouns. When immediately followed by a noun, whose, which, and what function as determiners or interrogative adjectives.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "'Who are you?' She didn't mean that; she meant, how did it happen?

    "'Nobody,' he said with conviction. 'Absolutely nobody. Who are you?'

    "'I don't know,' she said."
    (Martha Gellhorn, "Miami–New York." The Atlantic Monthly, 1948)

  • 'Who closed the lid?'

    "Grijpstra shrugged. 'Who cares? Some person who passed the car and didn't like the gaping rear end.'"
    (Janwillem Van de Wetering, The Mind-Murders. Houghton Mifflin, 1981)
  • "Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?"
    (attributed to Clarence Darrow)

  • "Yes! and that third place, on the other side, whose is that?—whose, whose, whose?"
    (Wilkie Collins, "Mr. Wray's Cash Box," 1852)
  • "When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: 'Whose?'"
    (Don Marquis)

  • “I have water and Diet Coke. That was the only soft drink I allowed Howie to have. Which do you prefer?"
    (Stephen King, Under the Dome. Scribner, 2009)
  • "'What did you see down there in the kitchen?' Caddy whispered. 'What tried to get in?'
    (William Faulkner, "That Evening Sun Go Down." The American Mercury, 1931)
  • "I got a belt on that's holding up my pants, and the pants have belt loops that hold up the belt. What is going on here? Who is the real hero?"
    (Comedian Mitch Hedberg)
  • Interrogative Pronouns and Antecedents
    "Notice that an interrogative pronoun will never have an antecedent. Since it asks a question, there is no way to know which noun an interrogative pronoun refers to. The antecedent remains a mystery until the question is answered."
    (M. Strumpf and A. Douglas, The Grammar Bible. Owl Books, 2004)
  • Semantic Contrasts: What versus Which
    - "These pronouns express two semantic contrasts:
    (1) a gender contrast of personal (the  who series) and nonpersonal ( what, which):
    Who is in the woodshed? What is in the woodshed?
    (2) a contrast of definiteness: indefinite  what contrasts with definite  which—the latter always implying a choice made from a limited number of alternatives:
    What was the winning number? [you must recall it]
    Which was the winning number? [you have a list]
    Note also the use of what to ask about a role or status:
    What is her father? [a politician]
    Which is her father? [in the photograph]"
    (David Crystal, Making Sense of Grammar. Longman, 2004)

    - "What is used when specific information is requested from a general or open-ended possible range. Which is used when specific information is requested from a restricted range of possibilities:
    A. I've got your address. What's your phone number?
    B. Oh it's 267358.
    (an open-ended range of possible information)
    [looking at a pile of coats]
    A. Which is your coat?
    B. That black one.
    However, where the number of options is shared knowledge among speakers and listeners, what + noun is often used in informal contexts. Here, what is an interrogative pronoun used as a determiner:
    [talking about a shop]
    What side of the street is it on, left or right?
    (or: Which side of the street is it on?)

    A: Did you see that documentary about the SARS virus last night?
    B; No, what channel was it on?
    (or: Which channel was it on?)"
    (R. Carter and M. McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English: A Comprehensive Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2006)


    Pronunciation: inte-ROG-eh-tiv PRO-nown

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    Nordquist, Richard. "interrogative pronoun." ThoughtCo, Dec. 17, 2016, Nordquist, Richard. (2016, December 17). interrogative pronoun. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "interrogative pronoun." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 19, 2018).