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What are Question Words? | Basic

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Lesson objectives: Learn about question words in English.

Goals: Identify question words using the present simple tense with the verb “be” and other verbs; learn the meaning of a “function word.; learn the most common question words and their functions when asking questions about people, places, things, time, and so on.

Prerequisite: This lesson is written for basic-level students, but the examples for question words are both basic and intermediate; for challenging verb constructions, students should focus on the function of the question words rather than the verb tense.

Lessons: See Question-Word Unit on Snap Language at the end of this page for a list of lessons.

Level

 basic

What Are Question Words?

Question words are function words that we use to ask questions about people, places, things, times, choices, manner, possession, and so on.

As function words, question words need to be in a context or situation to be clear or to mean something specific. For example, if you say, “where,” the meaning is clear only if you know the context or situation it refers to.

Asking for Information with Question Words

We ask a question using a question word to know specific information about something or someone.

  • Example 1. Using the simple present of “be”
  • In the sentence,

    John is at home today,

    there are three piece of information pieces of information:

    • John (a person)
    • at home (a place or location)
    • today (a time)

    You can use question words to ask for specific information about the above statement (about the person, the place, or the time).

    Asking about the person:

    Who is at home today?

    Asking about the place:

    Where is John today?

    Asking about the time:

    When is John at home?

    Note. to ask questions in English, you place the verb “be” before the subject; however, you do not place the verb “be” before the subject in the question using who above because who is the subject.

  • Example 2. Using the simple present
  • In the sentence,

    Susan teaches at Harvard every spring,

    there are four pieces of information:

    • Susan (a person)
    • teaches (an action)
    • at Harvard (a place or location)
    • every spring (the frequency)

    You can use question words to ask for specific information about the above statement (about the person, the action, the place, or the frequency).

    Asking about the person:

    Who teaches at Harvard every spring?

    Asking about the action:

    What does Susan do at Harvard every spring?

    Asking about the place:

    Where does Susan teach every spring?

    Asking about the frequency:

    How often does Susan teach at Harvard?

    Note. to ask questions using the simple present, you place the auxiliary verb (do or does) before the subject; however, you do not place an auxiliary before the subject in the question using who above because who is the subject. (You cannot say, “Does who teach at Harvard?” You must say, “Who teaches at Harvard?”)

List of Common Question Words

You ask questions using question words to know information you do not have. Each question word gives you a different type of information, for example, information about a person, a place, a thing, a time, and so on.

Common question words are sorted alphabetically (in ABC order) in the list below:

How

Asking for the manner, quality or description, or process

How do you pronounce this word?

How are you feeling today?

How do you bake a cake?

How + adjective

Asking for the extent or degree (of an adjective)

How hot is it today?

How sweet is this cake?

How + adverb

Asking for the extent or degree (of an adverb)

How often do you eat meat?

How quickly can you finish?

How about

Asking for an opinion; used to make a suggestion

I want to stay here. How about you? What do you want to do?

How about pizza for dinner?

How come

Asking for the reason for something (informal)

How come you never finished college?

How come you left early yesterday?

What

Asking for information about something when the answer can be anything; the question is not about choosing (compare with “which”); asking for information about an idea

What are you eating?

What does this word mean?

What + like

Asking for the description

What is your teacher like?

What is it like to live in Boston?

What about

Asking for a response to something said (idiom)

I like the new teacher. What about you?

I’ll have the chicken salad. What about you?

What for

Asking for the reason or purpose (idiom); sometimes expressing annoyance

What are you taking this course for?

What did you move all my clothes out of the closet for?

When

Asking for the time

When are your classes?

When did you arrive?

Where

Asking for the place or location

Where is Kenya?

Where are you from?

Which

Asking for information about something when there are limited choices (compare with “what”)

Which is your favorite course this semester?

Which do you prefer, the green one or the blue one?

Who

Asking for the person (as the grammatical subject or object)

Who is coming to dinner?

Who wants to be a billionaire?

Whom

Asking for the person (as the grammatical object only); generally used only in formal or academic English.

Whom are you bringing to the party? (... bringing him.)

With whom is John dancing? (... with her.)

Whose

Asking for the possession or who possesses something

Whose shoes are these? Are they yours?

Whose idea was it to come to this restaurant?

Why

Asking for the reason or explanation

Why is the sky blue?

Why does it rain so much in the tropics?

 

Question-Word Unit on Snap Language

To the Student: This unit covers an overview and the question words listed below. You can take one the whole unit or each lesson separately.

To the Teacher: You can assign all lessons as a unit or individual lessons.

Practice All Question Words

Lessons 2–7 above have their own exercises, which include only the question words covered in each lesson. The exercises below includes all question words at the same time.

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