A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.
English language learners must learn to ask and answer questions early on in their studies. Recently, one of our subscribers informed us that her students were struggling to answer Wh- questions correctly. What is the meaning of the different Wh- words? How are they all used?
For basic question patterns and the difference between Yes/No and Wh- questions, see our blog post on Question Formation in English.
Use who to ask about a person.
- Who is that?
- It’s our new teacher.
- Who did you invite to your party?
- I invited Maria, Lee, and Abdul.
Use what to ask about a thing.
- What is your favorite movie?
- I love The Shawshank Redemption.
- What did you do last night?
- I did my homework.
Use where to ask about a place.
- Where do you live?
- I live in California.
- Where is your school?
- It’s on Somerset Street.
Use when to ask about a time.
- When does the class start?
- It starts at 9:00 am.
- When did you wake up?
- I woke up at 7:30 am.
Use why to ask about a reason.
- Why do you like reading so much?
- I like it because I can learn new things.
- Why did you call me?
- I called you to invite you to my party.
Use how to ask about a method/way.
- How do you turn on this computer?
- You have to hold down the power button.
- How did your presentation go?
- It went well.
Use which to ask about a choice.
- Which do you prefer, chicken or steak?
- I prefer chicken.
- Which dress did you decide to wear?
- I decided to wear the black one.
Use whose to ask about possession.
- Whose book is this?
- It’s mine.
- Whose car did you borrow?
- I borrowed my friend’s car.
There are two basic patterns for forming Wh- questions in English.
Be Verb Pattern:
Wh- word + Be + subject
- Who is that?
- How are you?
Wh- word + aux* + subject + verb
- What do you want?
- Why did you quit?
*Aux means auxiliary verb. In questions, it is usually do, does, or did. It can also be a modal like can or should. For different tenses, it can be will (future), have (present perfect), etc.
Questions with how often involve the way someone is feeling.
|How are you?||I’m fine.|
|How do you feel?||I’m nervous.|
|How are you feeling?||Not great. I caught a cold.|
How is often used with another word such as often (to ask about frequency), much (to ask about cost), or many (to ask about an amount).
|How often do you brush your teeth?||I brush my teeth twice a day.|
|How much does this jacket cost?||It costs $75.00.|
|How many dogs do you have?||We have two.|
What is often used with another word such as time (to ask about clock time).
|What time is it?||It’s 4:30.|
|What time does the show start?||It starts at 8:00 pm.|
What is also used before another noun to ask about a choice. It is usually interchangeable with which.
|What movie do you want to watch?||Let’s watch the new Star Wars.|
|Which movie do you want to watch?||Let’s watch the new Star Wars.|
|What kind of ice cream do you want?||I would like chocolate, please.|
|Which kind of ice cream do you want?||I would like chocolate, please.|
Below is the activity from our Question Formation blog post. I’ve added it here for easy reference.
For an easy warm-up or filler activity, try doing a student-designed Q&A.
- First, cut up enough blank cards to have five (or ten) per student.
- Next, get students to write conversation-style Wh- questions of their choosing on their cards.
- If needed, put some examples on the board (e.g., What’s your favorite dish? When did you start studying English?).
- When they’ve finished writing their questions, collect the cards and shuffle them together.
- Now put students into small groups and divide the cards up evenly.
- Finally, have students take turns choosing a question and asking it to one or more of their group members. (You can choose an overall time limit, such as 20 minutes, or let them talk until their cards run out.)