Interrogative Pronouns

There are five interrogative pronouns in English. Each is used to ask a specific question. In this lesson, we will learn more about these pronouns.

"Interrogative Pronouns" in English Grammar

What Are Interrogative Pronouns?

To interrogate means to ask somebody questions. In English, interrogative pronouns are words that help you make questions. You may know them as wh-words, but remember that not all wh-words are interrogative pronouns. When you ask questions using these pronouns, the answer to these questions either refers to a person or a thing. Let us take a look at these pronouns:

What are English Interrogative Pronouns?

Here there is a table to help you learn the interrogative pronouns:

Interrogative Pronoun Person/Thing Asking about
What Thing Subject/Object
which Person/Thing Subject/Object
Who Person Subject
Whom Person Object
Whose Person/Thing Possessive Noun

Interrogative Pronouns: Functions

There are two ways to use an interrogative pronoun, it can either be the subject or the object of a sentence.

Interrogative Pronouns as the Subject

When interrogative pronouns are used as subjects they don't change the structure of the sentence at all. In this case there is no need to change the position of subject and verb or add an auxiliary verb. Take a look at these examples:

He goes to work every day. → Who goes to work every day?

You can see that all we had to do was to replace the subject 'he' with an interrogative pronoun.

This is her car. → Which is her car?

Here is the structure, you just omit the subject and put the interrogative pronoun in place of the subject.

Interrogative Pronouns as the Object

If you want to ask questions about the object of a sentence, you have to make some changes. First, you have to remove the object; then change the sentence into a yes/no question and finally add interrogative pronoun at the beginning of your sentence.

I need a new coffee maker. → What do you need?

Here, a new cup of coffee (object) is deleted. Do you need? is the yes/no question, and 'what' is used at the beginning of the sentence as an interrogative pronoun.

'Whose' as the Possessive Pronoun or Determiner

The only possessive pronouns in the list is 'whose.' Whose replaces possessive pronouns or determiners in a sentence and asks a question about possessions.

This car is mine. → Whose is this? Or Whose car is this?

This is my pen. → Whose is this? Or Whose pen is this?

Remember, 'Whose' replaces both possessive pronoun and determiner. It is important to know that if you want to use the noun like (car) you should put it immediately after 'whose.'

Who or Whom?

'Who' and 'whom' belong to the same family since they both refer to a person, but there is an important difference between them. Generally, when you want to ask about the subject, you use 'who'. If you want to ask about the object you use 'whom'. Look at these examples:

Who told you about the company's downsizing? -Rick told me.

In this question, 'who' asks about the subject of the verb 'told'; 'tell' is a transitive verb and it needs both a subject and an object. The object is 'you,' so you need the person that did the action of 'telling,' Rick.

Whom did they shoot? - They shot a girl in her car.

Here, we are asking about a girl who has been shot, the shooters (they) is the subject, and (a girl) is the object. So we use 'whom' to question the object.

Tip!

In modern English, 'whom' is considered formal and old-fashioned. So you can just use 'who' both as subject and object.

Using the Interrogative Pronoun 'What' to Form a Question

When to Use What and Which

'What' and 'which' are both used to ask about things, but there is a small difference between them. You can use 'what' to ask for information when there is an unlimited range of answers:

What is the most famous painting in the world?

What is your friend’s name?

By the sight of the term 'what' you can get that one is asking for information out of unlimited range of answers.

You can use 'which' to ask for information when there is a limited range of answers:

Which parent do you love more? Your father or your mother?

Here in this question, you have only two choices to answer 'your mother' or 'your father.'

'Which one is your sister?' 'The blond girl over there.'

Probably there is only one blonde girl over there, since the person is using 'which' to ask the question.

Interrogative Pronouns + Ever

There are five other interrogative pronouns that are less common than the ones we mentioned. Basically, you can make them by adding the suffix '-ever' or '-soever' to the original interrogative pronouns. You can use these suffixes to add emphasis or surprise to the question. Remember that '-soever' is rarely used these days. The rules of the original interrogative pronouns apply to these pronouns as well.

Let us look at some examples:

Whoever is at the door?! I wasn't expecting any guests!

Here '-ever' is used to show that the person is surprised.

Whatever you want to do with your life?! You are an adult now and you need to make serious decisions.

As you can see, '-ever' is added to the interrogative words to emphasize more.

Tip!

Using interrogative pronouns with '–ever' is not very common and is more seen in British English. However, using relative pronouns with the same suffix is very common and you see pronouns like 'whoever' or 'whatever' mostly as relative pronouns.

Interrogative Determiners

Generally, if you use 'what,' 'which,' and 'whose' alone, they would be interrogative pronouns. If you use a noun after them, they become interrogative determiners. Here are some examples for more clarity:

What color is your favorite?

Here, 'color' is a noun added to 'what,' so 'what' is an interrogative determiner here.

Whose shoes are these?

As you see, 'shoes' is a noun added to 'whose,' so 'whose' is an interrogative determiner here.

'Whose' is an interrogative determiner here. However, there is a very delicate difference between 'which' as an interrogative pronoun and 'which' as an interrogative determiner. If you change the order of the words in the example above, you can make a sentence with 'which' as an interrogative pronoun:

Whose are these shoes?

In this example, 'whose' is a interrogative pronoun, since there is no noun after it. As you know 'these' is the demonstrative determiner here.

Interrogative Pronouns vs. Relative Pronouns

You remember that interrogative pronouns are only used in questions; you can also use these pronouns in sentences other than questions, but they would no longer be interrogative pronouns and they would become 'relative pronouns.' 'Who,' 'whom,' 'which,' and 'whose' are all relative pronouns in this form, but 'what' will change into 'that'.

Relative pronouns function as the connector of a noun and a clause. Look at the following examples:

A bonus will be given to the salesman who makes the most money this month.

It is obvious that 'who' connects 'the salesman' to the clause 'makes the most money this month.'

Joan likes movies that have a lot of action scenes and loud noises.

Since 'what' is not a relative pronoun, it is replaced by 'that' to connect a noun (movies) to a clause (have a lot of action scenes and loud noises).

Review

Interrogative pronouns and interrogative determiners are used to ask wh-questions.
We can also use relative pronouns with a delicate difference from interrogative pronouns, in the middle of the sentences to connect them with each other.

Interrogative pronouns Relative pronouns
what that
which which
who who
whom whom
whose whose

How to Make Questions?

  • To ask about the subject: interrogative pronouns + verb complement or object + ?
  • To ask about the object: interrogative pronouns + yes/no question + ?

Key Differences

Let us take a look at the table to sum up, and learn the concept through some examples:

Who vs. Whom 'who' is used to refer to subjects and objects 'whom' is used to refer to objects
What vs. Which 'what' is used to ask about unlimited options 'which' is used to ask about limited options
Interrogative Pronouns vs. Interrogative Determiners interrogative 'pronouns' are used alone interrogative 'determiners' are followed by a noun

What are common errors related to this subject?

Whom are you talking to?

Whose farms are those?

Who is the girl in blue dress?

Which one is your favorite? blue or black?

Whose are these?

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