logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2


wh-question words

You will hear a good deal about these words if you are taking an initial training course.  Unfortunately, you may also hear a good deal which is wrong.

You may, at the outset, have noted that the word how is included in the list above but that it doesn't start with wh-.  That's true.  Nevertheless, it appears in this guide and is traditionally included in the group because it exhibits similar characteristics.


Making questions

Not only do these words make questions, the reason they do so is to do with their meaning.  They all have the general meaning of
    I do not know what this refers to so tell me.
We'll consider the 9 main wh-words: how, what, when, where, why, who, whom, which, whose.  We will consider them in isolation and talk about what else they do later.

We can elicit all sorts of information using these nine words.

  1. How did you know? (manner or means)
  2. What was she wearing? (thing)
  3. Where did they go? (place)
  4. When did they go? (time)
  5. Why was she crying? (reason)
  6. Who told you? (subject person)
  7. Who(m) did you tell? (object person)
  8. Which do you want? (choice of thing)
  9. Whose is that hat? (possessive)
think Think for a moment about the answers to these 9 questions.  What do you notice?
Click here when you have a response.

What is not possible

There are some things that wh-questions cannot elicit.  For example:

  1. We cannot ask about what are called dummy subjects.  We can say
        It got very windy yesterday
    but the question
        What got very windy yesterday?
    is meaningless because the answer would be it.
    The pronoun it is not always a dummy so when it refers to a real object, we allow:
        It got broken
        What got broken?
        The table.
  2. We cannot ask about the adjective complements of linking verbs such as appear, grow, become, seem etc.  We can say
        John appeared tired
        She was exhausted
        They grew angry
    but the questions
        What did John appear?
        What was she?
        What did they grow?
    are not possible without altering the meaning.
  3. We cannot ask about the verb.  We can say
        She told her mother a lie
        They chose him

    but the questions
        *What did she her mother?
        *What did they him?

    are nonsense.


Why is this important?

This is important because other languages handle interrogatives very differently and the peculiar restrictions of applicability to humans, non-humans and inanimate objects and restricted choices, for example, do not apply universally to all languages as they do to English.  The area needs to be taught.




Think for a moment about how you would say these two questions and try to figure whether your voice rises or falls towards the end.

  1. Are you coming to the meeting?
  2. What time is the meeting?

Say them aloud and then click here.

This is not an absolute rule – very little of intonation contains such things – but it is a clear tendency.  Many languages rely solely on intonation to make questions from statements and English has that ability, too, in questions such as
    You are going to London?
in which the intonation rises sharply along with voice pitch to express disbelief or surprise.  This is often rendered in writing by double question marks and/or exclamation marks.
This is an area that needs to be taught because many learners will assume that intonation always rises on questions and are in danger of sounding rude and demanding if they do this with wh-questions.


Forming wh-questions

It is impossible to form wh-questions successfully unless you are alert to the focus of the question you want to ask.


Consider these questions and see if you can work out what the problems for learners are with the form of the questions.

  1. Who broke the glass?
  2. Which letter did you lose?
  3. How long have you been here?
  4. Whose car hit the gate?
  5. Why were you late?
  6. When are you going to tell her?
  7. What comes next?
  8. Where is the meeting?
  9. Whom did you see?

Click here when you have done that.

This is a complication which many other languages do not share so it is a source of errors such as:


We need to distinguish this carefully when teaching the forms or we will be guilty of actually inducing errors in our learners rather than helping them to the right forms.
To emphasise the point, there are three rules:


If the focus of the question is the subject of the verb, the question is formed with unchanged word order.

So we have, e.g.:
    The girl caught the ball → Who caught the ball?
    The car hit the wall → What hit the wall?
    The grey horse won → Which horse won?
    My team lost → Whose team lost?

Forming these questions is really quite simple.  It is even simpler when the verb in question cannot take an object at all because no other construction is possible so we get:
    The girl left → Who left?
    It fell → What fell?
    The letter arrived → Which letter arrived?
    My team came first → Whose team came first?


If the focus of the question is the object of the verb, the normal rules for forming questions apply.

So we have, e.g.:
    The girl caught the ball → What did the girl catch?
    The car has hit the wall → What has the car hit?
    The grey horse will win the last race → Which race will the grey horse win?
    My dog chased her cat → Whose cat did your dog chase?

Forming these questions is only simple if learners are already familiar with the quite complicated ways that questions are formed.  For more on that, see the guide linked below.


If the focus of the question is on the adverbial (when, where, why, with what, with whom, how), the normal rules for forming questions apply.

So we have, e.g.:
    The girl left last night → When did the girl leave?
    The car has stopped outside the house → Where has the car stopped?
    She has bet on the grey horse → Why has she bet on the grey horse?
    They finished the work with some help → How did they finish the work?

    I travelled by car → How did you travel?
    I worked with Mary → Who did you work with?
Again, forming these questions is only simple if learners are already familiar with the quite complicated ways that questions are formed.  For more on that, see the guide linked below.

The abbreviated rule is:

Apply the normal rules for forming questions with wh-words unless the focus is the subject.


Complications with how

As we saw in the first set of examples, most wh-words have a straightforward meaning.  The word how is somewhat different.


What does it mean in these examples?

  1. How long have you been waiting?
  2. How often does she do that?
  3. How much does he want the job?
  4. How long is the journey?
  5. How are you?
  6. How was the trip?
  7. How interesting did you find it?
  8. How many do we need?

Click here when you have 8 meanings clear.  Thinking of possible answers to the questions makes that easier.

The issue here is the word is followed by a range of other items (quantifiers, adverbs, adjectives etc.) and its meaning alters considerably.  Other languages do not have such a common multiword so the area needs handling carefully.  Learners can easily become confused.

The word what also exhibits multiple meanings but to a lesser extent.  We can have, for example:
    What did you tell her? (referring to something said)
    What can I help you with? (referring to an action)
    What flight are you on? (referring to a noun phrase)


Formality and prepositions

Formality in English requires the wh-word to be accompanied by its preposition so we get, e.g.:

Formal question vs. Informal question
With whom did you come? Who did you come with?
For what did he ask? What did he ask for?
With which officer did you speak? Which officer did you speak with

That's the general rule but the longer the clause between the wh-word and the preposition, the more difficult it gets to construct an informal sentence.  Would you accept, e.g.,
    What did you use to get the awful mess out of the pipe and clear away all the dirty water from the sink with?
    What time are you going to ask them all and their friends from Holland to meet us under the pier at?


Emphasising wh-questions

The most frequent way to emphasise wh-questions is the use of the word everFor example

Some things to note:

  1. There are other popular emphasisers such as the hell, in heaven's name, on earth etc.
  2. These are normally written as two words to distinguish their function.  When they are written as one word, they often mean It doesn't matter who/what/when/how/which etc.  For example
        Whoever comes late must sit over there
    is not emphatic; it means anyone who comes late.
        He leaves whenever he feels a little tired
    is also not emphatic; it functions as a subordinating conjunction just as when does.  The same applies to
        You can sit wherever you like
    and to many other -ever words.
  3. The emphatic why ever only occurs as two words in English.

Related guides
negatives and questions for a more on these two areas
tag questions an essential guide to how these and what they do
interrogatives for a much more technical guide in the in-service section to the whole area