Guides for Forming WH- QUESTIONS

The WH- QUESTIONS are questions formed with a question word, such as who, whom, whose, what, which, when, where, why or how. These question words are also called INTERROGATIVE WORDS.

Forming Wh- Questions

The question words who and what can ask for information about the subject of the verb or the object of the verb. Consider the declarative sentence below:

  • The boy lost his bicycle.

NOTE: There are various constituents in the sentence above that could be questioned with a wh- question. For instance, we could pose a question about the subject (the boy), as in 1a, or we could ask about the object (his bicycle)—as is the case in 1b.

  • 1a)  Who lost his bicycle?
  • 1b)  What did the boy lose?

Wh- Questions About an Object

When any object—i.e., direct objectOpens in new window, indirect objectOpens in new window, or object of a prepositionOpens in new window—in a declarative sentenceOpens in new window is questioned and the sentence contains an auxiliary verbOpens in new window, a modal verbOpens in new window, or copular be, two rules come into play: wh- movement and subject-aux inversion.

For example, the wh- question in 2a) asks for information about the direct object in sentence 2b). The steps that are followed to produce 2a) are shown in 2c) and 2d).

First, the object, something, is converted into the appropriate wh- question word, what, and this is moved to the beginning of the sentence by the process of wh- movement (also referred to as wh- fronting). Subsequently, subject-aux inversion switches the positions of the subject, you, and the auxiliary verb, are.

If the underlying sentence does not contain an auxiliary verb, a modal verb, or copular be, then a slightly different process is applied to create a wh-question. This process is shown in 3).

Wh- movement is applied in 3c), followed by do insertion and a change of the verb to its bare infinitive form, shown in 3d).

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 4), two possible question patterns may be used.

  • 4a)  You went to the concert with someone. → declarative sentence
  • 4b)  Who did you go to the concert with?
  • 4c)  With whom did you go to the concert?

In 4a), someone is the object of the preposition with. In 4b), 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 4c) 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 4c) is considered by some to be more appropriate for formal or academic writing.

Wh- Questions About a Subject

When the subject of a declarative sentence is questioned, no fronting or inversion rules apply. The subject is simply converted into the appropriate wh- word. This is illustrated in 5).

  • 5a)  Who needs a lift?
  • 5b)  Someone needs a lift. → declarative sentence
  • 5c)  Who needs a lift? → subject “someone”, becomes “who”

Wh- Questions with How + Adjective/Adverb

In English how combines with adjectives and adverbs to form questions beginning with how many, how long, how often, etc., as shown in 6).

  • 6a)  How long did the press conference last?
  • 6b)  How many stamps did she take?

Embedded Wh- Questions

Wh- questions can be embedded inside a longer sentence, as the case is in 7).

  • 7)  I have no idea how much this sandwich costs.

NOTE: When a wh- question about an object is embedded in this way, it does not undergo subject-aux inversion or do insertion. Instead, only wh- movement is applied. Notice the difference between the regular wh- questions and their embedded versions in 8).

Regular Wh- Question Embedded Wh- Question
8a) What was she doing?I want to know what she was doing.
8b) Where is she going? I want to know where she is going.
8c) How could he do it? I want to know how he could do it.
8d) How much does it cost? I want to know how much it costs.

Note that wh- questions may differ depending on the kind of content information the asker seeks. In the next entry, we discuss the different Types of Wh- QuestionsOpens in new window