Interrogative word

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An interrogative word or question word is a function word used to ask a question, such as what, when, where, who, whom, why, and how. They are sometimes called wh-words, because in English most of them start with wh- (compare Five Ws). They may be used in both direct questions (Where is he going?) and in indirect questions (I wonder where he is going). In English and various other languages the same forms are also used as relative pronouns in certain relative clauses (The country where he was born) and certain adverb clauses (I go where he goes).

A particular type of interrogative word is the interrogative particle, which serves to convert a statement into a yes–no question, without having any other meaning. Examples include est-ce que in French, ли li in Russian, czy in Polish, কি ki in Bengali, ma in Chinese, /mi in Turkish and ka in Japanese. (The English word whether has a similar function, but only in indirect questions; and Multicultural London English may use "innit", even in the absence of the pronoun "it".) Such particles contrast with other interrogative words, which form what are called wh-questions rather than yes–no questions.

For more information about the grammatical rules for forming questions in various languages, see Interrogative.

In English

Interrogative words in English include:

  • interrogative determiner
    • which, what
    • whose (personal possessive determiner)
  • interrogative pro-form
    • interrogative pronoun
      • who, whom, whose (personal)
      • what, which
    • interrogative pro-adverb
      • where (location)
      • whence (source)
      • whither (goal)
      • when (time)
      • how (manner)
      • why (reason)
      • whether (choice between alternatives)

Certain pronominal adverbs may also be used as interrogative words, such as whereby or wherefore.


Ultimately, the English interrogative pronouns (those beginning with wh in addition to the word how), derive from the Proto-Indo-European root kwo- or kwi, the former of which was reflected in Proto-Germanic as χwa- or khwa-,[citation needed] due to Grimm's law.

These underwent further sound changes and spelling changes, notably wh-cluster reductions, resulting in the initial sound being either /w/ (in most dialects) or /h/ (how, who) and the initial spelling being either wh or h (how). This was the result of two sound changes – /hw/ > /h/ before /uː/ (how, who) and /hw/ > /w/ otherwise – and the spelling change from hw to wh in Middle English. The unusual pronunciation versus spelling of who is because the vowel was formerly /aː/, and thus it did not undergo the sound change in Old English, but in Middle English (following spelling change) the vowel changed to /uː/ and it followed the same sound change as how before it, but with the Middle English spelling unchanged.

In how (Old English , from Proto-Germanic χwō), the w merged into the lave of the word, as it did in Old Frisian hū, hō (Dutch hoe "how"), but it can still be seen in Old Saxon hwō, Old High German hwuo (German wie "how"). In English, the gradual change of voiceless stops into voiceless fricatives (phase 1 of Grimm's law) during the development of Germanic languages is responsible for "wh-" of interrogatives. Although some varieties of American English and various Scottish dialects still preserve the original sound (i.e. [ʍ] rather than [w]), most preserve only the [w].

The words who, whom, whose, what and why, can all be considered to come from a single Old English word hwā, reflecting its masculine and feminine nominative (hwā), dative (hwām), genitive (hwæs), neuter nominative and accusative (hwæt), and instrumental (masculine and neuter singular) (hwȳ, later hwī) respectively. Other interrogative words, such as which, how, where, whence, or whither, derive either from compounds (which coming from a compound of hwā [what, who] and līc [like]), or other words from the same root (how deriving from ).

The Proto-Indo-European root also directly originated the Latin and Romance form qu- in words such as Latin quī ("which") and quando ("when"); it has also undergone sound and spelling changes, as in French qui "which", with initial /k/, and Spanish cuando, with initial /kw/.

Forms with -ever

Most English interrogative words can take the suffix -ever, to form words such as whatever and wherever. (An older form of the suffix is -soever, as in whomsoever.) These words have the following main meanings:

  • As more emphatic interrogative words, often expressing disbelief or puzzlement in mainly rhetorical questions: Whoever could have done such a thing? Wherever has he gone?
  • To form free relative clauses, as in I'll do whatever you do, Whoever challenges us will be punished, Go wherever they go. In this use, the nominal -ever words (who(m)ever, whatever, whichever) can be regarded as indefinite pronouns or as relative pronouns.
  • To form adverbial clauses with the meaning "no matter where/who/etc.": Wherever they hide, I shall find them.

Some of these words have also developed independent meanings, such as however as an adverb meaning "nonetheless"; whatever and whatsoever as emphatic adverbs used with no, none, any, nothing, etc.; and whatever in its slang usage.

Other languages

A frequent class of interrogative words in several other languages is the interrogative verb:

  • Korean: Nalssi-ga eotteoh-seumni-kka? (Hangul: 날씨가 어떻습니까?) Weather-nominative be_how-politeness fifth level-interrogative suffix "How's the weather?"
  • Mongolian: Chi yaa-vch jaahan huuhed bish gej bi bod-jii-ne You do_what-concessive small child not that I think-progressive-nonpast "Whatever you do, I think you’re not a small child." (Example taken from an Internet forum)

See also