What

'What' is commonly known as a question word, but there is more depth to this word than you are aware. Click here t learn all about it!

How to Use "What" in the English Grammar

What is a widely-used vocabulary and a part of the WH-words category. We will learn five functions of what in this lesson:

1. 'What' as an Interrogative Pronoun

Use

What as an interrogative pronoun is used to ask about the object, the subject, the subject complement, and people's full name. It is also the object of a preposition. Remember that what is only used to refer to things. Take a look at its uses:

  • What as an interrogative pronoun is used to ask about the non-human objects of a sentence; for example:

A : I want some water.

B : What do you want?

  • What as an interrogative pronoun is used to ask about the non-human subjects of a sentence; for example:

A : A book is over there.

B : What is over there?

  • What as an interrogative pronoun is used to ask about the subject complement with linking verbs; like:

What is this?

'What' replaces the subject complement.

  • What is used to ask for peoples' names; for instance:

A : What was her name?

B : Victoria.

A : Victoria what?

B : Victoria Rogers.

  • What as an interrogative pronoun can also be the object of prepositions in formal contexts. For example:

On what evidence are they arresting me?

  • What as an interrogative pronoun can be used alone to ask someone to repeat what they have just said. For example:

A : Would you call her?

B : Sorry, what?

Position in a Sentence

What as an interrogative pronoun is used at the beginning of a clause. If what replaces the object, an inversion is required.
How the inversion is made?

  1. The interrogative pronoun comes at the beginning of a clause;
  2. The object is omitted and the pronoun 'what' is replaced;
  3. The subject and the verb are inverted if the object is omitted. If the subject is omitted, the verb comes after the interrogative pronoun.

Tip

Note that the subjects 'I' and 'we' change to 'you.'
If there is a main verb in a sentence, a semi-auxiliary or an auxiliary verb is needed for interrogation.

For example:

A : I want some water.

B : What do you want?

In the example above, the object 'some water' is omitted. An inversion between the subject and the verb is needed. For example:

A : A book is over there.

B : What is over there?

In this example, the subject 'a book' is questioned, so the verb comes after the interrogative pronoun.

Warning

What can also be used at the end of a clause in informal contexts. In this case, the inversion is not needed.

A : I want some water.

B : You want what?

Tip

What as an interrogative pronoun can be used alone to show surprise or excitement.

A : I went to Siberia.

B : What?

2. 'What' as an Interrogative Determiner

Use

What as an interrogative determiner is used in questions before nouns. For example:

What time is it?

'What' is the determiner of 'time.'

What size do you wear?

Position in a Sentence

What comes before a noun and an inversion is also required. For example:

What time is it?

What size do you wear?

Tip

What is mostly used to refer to non-human objects or subjects, but it can also refer to humans. Look at this example:

What idiot wrote this?

'Idiot' refers to a human.

3. 'What' as a Pre-determiner

Use

What as a pre-determiner is used to show surprise, pleasure, and other emotions. For example:

What an interesting movie it was!

'What' shows surprise.

Position in a Sentence

What as a pre-determiner is used before definite articles or indefinite articles.

What a cute girl!

What a fool he was!

Tip

'What' as a pre-determiner can be used with uncountable nouns as well. Remember that there is no article before uncountable nouns. For example:

What luck she has!

'What' is a pre-determiner.

4. 'What' as a Relative Determiner

Use

What as a relative determiner is used to connect the relative clause to an independent clause. The relative clause introduced by a relative determiner is nominal because it acts as an object or a subject for the independent clause.

I don't know what book you want.

'What book you want' is the object of 'know.'

What book you want to buy, doesn't matter.

'What book you want to buy' is the subject of 'doesn't matter.'

Position in a Sentence

What as a relative determiner is always used at the beginning of a nominal relative clause.

What book you want to buy, doesn't matter.

'What book you want to buy' is a nominal relative clause.

Do you know what flower to get?

'What flower to get' is the nominal relative clause introduced by 'what.'

5. 'What' as a Nominal Relative Pronoun

Use

What as a nominal relative pronoun is used to connect a relative clause to an independent clause. The relative clause is nominal because it acts either as a subject, an object, or a complement for the independent clause. For example:

I don't know what you want.

'What you want' acts as an object for 'I don't know.'

What you want, doesn't matter.

'What you want' is the subject for 'doesn't matter.'

Position in a Sentence

What as a nominal relative pronoun always heads a nominal relative clause and it is not followed by nouns. For example:

It is what you want.

'What you want' is the complement of 'it is.' In addition, 'what' heads a nominal relative clause.

I don't know what you want.

'What you want' is the nominal relative clause as it is introduced by 'what.'

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