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Question Words


Question Words
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A few years ago on the American television show Saturday Night Live, actor Jerry Seinfeld answered questions from the audience. However, the people who asked them were not ordinary showgoers, but Hollywood stars.

The questions were jokes that made fun of other actors. Tim Meadows asked if he could read from a magazine list of the worst actors to ever appear on the show.

But let me just read who is dead last. And do we have a camera ready to cut to Robert Downey Jr.?

No, let's not do this, let's not do this! This is not a good idea. Other questions.

Oh! Bob Odenkirk here. Bob!

Jerry, when are we doing a tribute to the writers of SNL...?

That short discussion provides examples of two of the most common kinds of questions in English - “yes/no” questions and “wh-” questions.

What are question words?

A yes/no question is one that can be answered simply with a yes or a no.

And do we have a camera ready to cut to Robert Downey Jr.?

No, let's not do this...

The “wh-” question requires a more detailed answer:

Jerry, when are we doing a tribute to the writers of SNL...?

That question includes the word “when,” which starts with “wh-.” The words what, where or why are also used for “wh-” questions. This is where the “wh-” name comes from.*

“Wh-” questions follow a pattern. The question word comes first. Then come the subject and main verb. In some cases, there is a helping verb, such as do, have, or can, in between the question word and the subject.

The pattern is Question word + (helping verb) + subject + main verb

Here are two examples, one in the present and one in the past:

Where does he work?

What did she say?

Question words in answers

You might be thinking that this is all you need to know about question words. But question words are important for another reason: they can be used in answers.

Question words often begin noun clauses - groups of words with a subject and a verb. These clauses act like a noun in the sentence.

Think back to our examples:

Where does he work?

What did she say?

In response to these questions, a person might say:

I don’t know where he works.

I didn’t hear what she said.

In the first example, where he works is a noun clause.

In the second example, what she said is a noun clause.

Notice that the question word order is not used in the answer. The verb do does not appear in the noun clause in the answer.

Where does he work?

I don’t know where he works.

Closing thoughts

The next time you are listening or reading, try to find examples of question words – both in questions and in answers. Also pay attention to how speakers use intonation and word stress with question words.

Then practice using them a lot.

There are only a small number of question words, and they are useful in almost any situation you can think of. If your goal is to improve your speaking skills, then you must use question words with ease.

I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

* Not all so-called “wh-” questions begin with “wh-.” 'How' is one example.

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Words in This Story

tribute – n. something that you say, give, or do to show respect or affection for someone

pattern – n. the regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done

intonation – n. the rise and fall in the sound of your voice when you speak

word stress – n. greater loudness or force given to a syllable or a word in speech

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