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?

Interrogative pronouns are used to ask questions. The interrogative pronoun replaces the noun or noun phrase we are asking about.

English Interrogative Pronouns

The following table represents the English 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

An interrogative pronoun can be the subject or the object of a sentence.

Interrogative Pronouns as the Subject

When interrogative pronouns are used as subjects in a sentence, they do not change the sentence structure. Rather, they simply replace the subject of the sentence. There is no need to change the position of the verb or add an auxiliary verb. Take a look at some 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?

Interrogative Pronouns as the Object

When asking questions about the object of a sentence, some changes need to be made to the sentence. First, the object needs to be removed, and then the sentence should be transformed into a yes/no question. Finally, the appropriate interrogative pronoun should be added to the beginning of the sentence.

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

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

'Whose' as a Possessive Pronoun or a Determiner

'Whose' is the only possessive pronoun in the list. It can be used to replace possessive nouns or determiners in a sentence and is used to ask questions about ownership or possession.

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

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

If you want to mention the noun (pen) you should place it immediately after 'whose.'

Who or Whom?

'Who' and 'whom' are closely related pronouns since they both refer to a person, but there is an important difference between them. Generally, 'who' is used when asking about the subject of a sentence, while 'whom' is used when asking about the object. 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'.

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

Here, the shooters (they) is the subject, and (a girl) is the object. So 'whom' is used to ask about the object.

Tip!

In modern English, 'whom' is considered formal and old-fashioned. So 'who' can be used to ask about both the subject and object of a sentence.

Using the Interrogative Pronoun 'What' to Form a Question

What vs. Which

'What' and 'which' are both used to ask about things, but there is a subtle difference between them. 'What' is used to inquire about something when there is a wide or unlimited range of possible answers.

What is the most famous painting in the world?

What is your friend’s name?

On the other hand, 'which' is used to inquire about something when there is a specific or limited range of possible answers. For example:

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

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.'

Interrogative Pronouns + Ever

There are five less common interrogative pronouns that can be formed by adding the suffix '-ever' or '-soever' to the original interrogative pronouns. These suffixes add emphasis or surprise to the question. However, it's important to note that '-soever' is rarely used in modern English. The rules that apply to the original interrogative pronouns also apply to these modified pronouns.

Take a 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 pronoun to add emphasis.

Tip!

The use of interrogative pronouns with '-ever' is not very common and is more frequently seen in British English. However, the use of relative pronouns with the same suffix is very common, and pronouns such as 'whoever' or 'whatever' are typically used as relative pronouns rather than interrogative pronouns.

Interrogative Determiners

Generally, when 'what,' 'which,' and 'whose' are used alone, they function as interrogative pronouns. However, when these words are followed by a noun, they become interrogative determiners. Here are some examples:

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.

In this example, 'whose' functions as an interrogative determiner. However, there is a subtle difference between 'whose' as an interrogative pronoun and 'whose' as an interrogative determiner. If the word order in the example above is changed, it is possible to construct a sentence where 'which' functions 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

Interrogative pronouns are typically used in questions. However, these pronouns can also be used in sentences that are not questions, in which case they become relative pronouns. In this form, 'who,' 'whom,' 'which,' and 'whose' all function as relative pronouns. However, 'what' changes to 'that' in this context.

Relative pronouns serve 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.

'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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