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Contractions with Question Words

everyday grammar
everyday grammar
Contractions with Question Words
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Imagine you enjoy hip hop music or want to learn about the history of hip hop.

You might listen to Run DMC, one of the most famous groups of the 1980s. Let’s listen to a few words from the group’s famous song, “How'd Ya Do It Dee?”

The answers, from questions, I'm tellin to thee
Cause they always ask me, D.M.C., "How'd ya do it Dee?"

In today’s Everyday Grammar, we will show you how hip hop can teach you about English grammar. You will learn about pronouns and contractions with question words.

Pronoun usage

Let’s listen to the first line again:

The answers, from questions, I'm tellin to thee

This line sets up the idea about questions and answers. But we will have to set that aside for later in the report.

The word of interest in this line is a pronoun: the word thee.

This is a very old second-person pronoun that is no longer used in everyday speaking. Its modern equivalent would be the pronoun you.

Google Ngrams has data from books dating back many hundreds of years. A recent Ngrams search suggested that thee was more commonly used in the 1500’s and 1600’s.

History of the word thee
History of the word thee

You will probably never hear an American use the pronoun thee in everyday speaking, although its meaning is commonly understood.

You might be asking yourself: why would a modern singer use an ancient pronoun? While only the artist truly knows the reason, one possibility is that thee rhymes with the final word - the name Dee - in the next line:

Cause they always ask me, D.M.C., "How'd ya do it Dee?"

This line now leads us to contractions with question words.

Contractions with question words

Question words are words such as what, where, who, when, why, or how.

These words, along with changes in the speaker’s voice, show that a person is asking a question – at least in everyday speech. In writing, the question word and a question mark show a question.

English speakers often use question words with certain verbs or helping verbs – be, do, has, would, and so on. Sometimes English speakers combine the question word and a short form of the verb or helping verb. This is known as a contraction.

Let’s think back to our example from Run DMC

Cause they always ask me, D.M.C., "How'd ya do it Dee?"

In this line, the question word is how. The helping verb is did. However, did appears in its shortened form - ‘d. “How did” becomes “How’d.” This is a contraction.

To be clear: this is not slang or impolite language. This is normal everyday speech.

You might be wondering how different verbs and helping verbs contract. The answer is that there are regular, repeated ways in which English speakers make contractions.

Contractions with ‘d

Consider these three helping verbs that often appear after question words: had, did, and would.

All of these reduce to ‘d, as in d.

Run DMC was using the contraction for did, as in “How did you do it?”

A person might also ask, “Who’d called you before that?” This is a shorter way of saying, “Who had called you before that?”

Or a person might ask, “Where’d you like to go?” This is short for “Where would you like to go?”

Contractions with ‘s

Other common verbs – is and has, for example, both contract in the same way with ‘s. This sounds like z or s, depending on the situation.

So, a question like “Where is New York City?” becomes “Where’s New York City?”

A question like “What has been going on?” becomes “What’s been going on?”

Closing thoughts

In today’s report, we explored what a few lines from a song can teach you about English grammar. You learned about a pronoun that has been out of use for a long time. And you learned about the idea behind contractions with question words.

The next time you listen to music, pay careful attention to contractions with question words. Make note of how speakers form the contractions and try to understand the verb that is being reduced. With time, you will make great progress in your ability to understand and form your own contracted speech. And perhaps your English teacher will one day ask you “How’d you learn about contractions with question words?”

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

contraction – n. a short form of a word or word group that is made by leaving out a sound or letter

certain – adj. always used before a noun — used to refer to something or someone that is not named specifically