Wh- Question Formation


Hear the Lecture


Look at some examples

Look at these five wh- questions.  What information is being sought?  How are the questions formed--and how are they alike or different from each other in their formation?  Analyze each for subject and predicate. 
 

Example Wh- Questions

1. Who plans to take SLA this summer?
2. What causes students to select particular majors? 
3. Who will John ask for information about summer courses?
4. When can we register for graduation?
5. Where do we go to register for graduation?


What do you see in example #1?  The subject is who, and the predicate is everything else.  The question is formed by putting the wh- word who into the subject position.  The question is about the subject of the sentence.  The speaker knows everything--someone plans to take SLA this summer, but doesn't know who

What do you see in example #2?  The subject is what, and the predicate is everything else.  The question is about the subject of the sentence:  something causes students to select particular majors.  The question is formed by putting the wh- word what into the subject position.  No other changes are needed to make a question--other than the question mark, of course.

What about example #3?  The subject of the sentence is John.  The predicate is will ask someone for information about summer courses.  The total sentence that lies behind the question: John will ask someone for information about summer courses.  The unknown information is the direct object of the verb will ask.  The formation gets more complicated in this situation: 

Step #1 Insert the wh- word into the sentence:  John will ask who for information about summer courses? 
Step #2 Move the wh- word to the beginning of the sentence: Who John will ask for information about summer courses? 
Step #3 Move the operator in front of the subject: Who will John ask for information about summer courses? 

Why didn't I use whom?  That's super formal and unlikely to be used in asking a question like this one.  In fact, it's a bit hard to imagine any native speaker or truly fluent NNS using whom in this type of question.

What about example #4?  The subject of the sentence is we.  The predicate is can register for graduation some time.  The whole sentence that lies behind the question: We can register for graduation some time. The question is about the adverbial of time.  The speaker knows everything but the time/date.  Again, the formation is more complicated than in examples #1 and #2; the process is the same as for example #3. 
Step #1  Insert the wh- word into the sentence:  We can register for graduation when?
Step #2 Move the wh- word to the beginning of the sentence:   When we can register for graduation? 
Step #3 Move the operator in front of the subject: When can we register for graduation?
What about example #5?  The subject of the sentence is we.  The predicate is go somewhere to register for graduation.  The question is about the adverbial of location/place.  The whole sentence that lies behind the question: We go somewhere to register for graduation.  For this example, the process in examples #3 and #4 is followed but with another complication because of the missing operator. 
Step #1 Insert the wh- word into the sentence:  We go where to register for graduation?
Step #2 Move the wh- word to the beginning of the sentence:   Where we go to register for graduation? 
Step #3 Move the operator in front of the subject: But...there's no operator to move! 
Step #3a: Insert do to be the operator.  Where we do go to register for graduation? 
Step #3b: Move the operator in front of the subject: Where do we go to register for graduation?
What generalizations can we take away from these examples?
1. Wh- questions are formed by inserting a wh- word into a sentence in the place of missing information.

2. Wh- questions focus on particular parts of sentences--not generally on the whole sentence the way that yes-no questions do.

3. Wh- questions about the subject of a sentence have simplier grammar than wh- questions about anything in the predicate.

4. Wh- questions about the subject of a sentence just insert who or what and keep the same word order. 

5. Wh- questions about anything in the predicate insert a wh- word and then manipulate the word order by moving that wh- word to the beginning and moving the operator in front of the subject.

6. If there's no operator in the verb phrase, then one has to be added.  Like yes-no questions and negatives with not in the verb phrase, wh- questions that need to add an operator use do/does/did.

7. Wh- questions about subjects are simplier than wh- questions about the predicate.  The word order is simplier; only two word are needed--who or what

8. Wh- questions about anything in the predicate are more complicated than wh- questions about subjects.  The syntax requires not just insertion of the wh- word but also manipulation of the word order.  More words are needed, too: who, what, when, where, why, and others.

Other Complexities

Analyze the following examples.  The general pattern of the syntax will be like other wh- questions.  But what part of the sentence is the focus on the question?  Why is whom used in the 4th example?
 

Examples

#1. Whose car is blocking the entrance to the store?
#2a. Which textbook was used in SLA last summer?
#2b. Which textbook did the teacher use in SLA last summer?
#3. How carefully have you considered your future career?
#4. To whom did you send your job application?
#5. What did you do last summer?


#1. Whose car is blocking the entrance to the store?  When we reformulate the question to see what sentence lies behind it, we get: someone's car is blocking the driveway.  We can talk about this as a question about the determiner or about the possessive.  Someone's car is the subject of the sentence. Thus, whose can be added and no change in word order is needed.

#2a. Which textbook was used in SLA last summer?  Like #1, this question focuses on the noun phrase and asks for more details about that noun phrase but not the possessive.  Try to explain how #2b differs from #2a. 

#3. How carefully have you considered your future career? This question is asking for an intensifier--very carefully, too carefully, not carefully enough.  Because it is not the subject of the sentence, insertion of the wh- word is followed by the word order changes required for non-subject wh- questions.

#4. To whom did you send your job application? Use of whom is rare--and very formal and a bit school-teacher-ish.  But, let's analyze this example to see how the grammar works.  What's the sentence that lies behind the question?  What function does to play in that sentence?  What steps are required to get from the sentence to the question?  After you've worked out your answer, click here to see mine.

#5. What did you do last summer?  What is this question about?  What's the meaning and function of the full verb do in this question?  After you've worked out your answer, click here to see mine.


Teaching/Learning Issues

When we look at the steps that we go through to form wh- questions, especially the questions that are about things other than the subject of the sentence, we start to see some very familiar language.  Some of those intermediate steps sound a lot like the questions that are produced by our ESL/EFL students.  Look at the following:
 

You did something last summer.

Step #1: You did what last summer?

Step #2: What you did last summer?

Step #3: What did you did last summer?

Finally Step #4:  What did you do last summer?


 
XXXX means something.
Where XXXX is a word that the learner is seeking a definition for.

Step #1: XXXX means what?

Step #2: What means XXXX?

Step #3: What does XXXX means?

Finally Step #4:: What does XXXX mean?


Learning to ask wh- questions requires two things of students: they must learn the correct words to use, and they must learn the word order for two different types of wh- questions.  As students learn to apply these features of wh- questions, they get parts right and parts not-quite-right and parts wrong as natural stages along the way to fluent and accurate question asking.  Steps #1 and #4 are ones that native speakers and advanced NNS use.  Steps #2 and #3 show a student who is trying out new grammar. 

Students can have another step along the way in questions like What you did do last summer?   Here the speaker has all the right words but not the right word order.

A student can fully understand the rules but not yet be able to produce accurately formed questions under the time, energy, emotional stress of speech--but can get the formation right on a written test with time for monitoring her/his production.  Or, the student could not have the rules right yet for a variety of reasons: a student might have heard the form but not had instruction about it, or a student might have had instruction and not understood it, or a student might have had bad instruction, or a student might had had good instruction but mis-understood it to form a new rule that's not quite English.  That is, learners will produce language like Steps #2 and #3 for a variety of reasons as they learn to ask questions.  These errors are well motiviated--they are not random but are attempts to apply the rules of English as then understood by the learner. 

Later in this lecture, we'll think about ways to teach students to be effective users of questions, including both yes-no and wh- questions.  I look forward to learning more about your ideas on this important topic. 

Please email me your questions and comments. Thanks.