English Question Formation and Word Order

Introduction

Questions, also called interrogative sentences, allow us to get information. They generally follow the pattern: wh + auxiliary verb + subject + main verb. There are a few different types of questions in English grammar. Closed or yes/no questions don’t use a question word (i.e. what) and can only be answered with yes or no. Open questions, or wh questions, use a question word and can be answered freely. We use indirect questions in reported speech or to be polite.

Learn about question formation and word order in English Questions with Lingolia’s grammar lesson. In the interactive exercises, you can practise what you have learnt.

Example

Do you like ice-cream?

How often do you eat ice-cream?

Have you had an ice-cream today?

What is your favourite kind of ice-cream?

Advertisement

Question Formation in English Grammar

Questions with an auxiliary verb

When forming questions, we often need the help of an auxiliary verb. In compound tenses, the passive, and modal verbs, we take the auxiliary verb or modal verb that is already in the sentences, and move it in front of the subject.

Example:
I have had an ice-cream today.
Have you had an ice-cream today? (present perfect)
The ice-cream is made with milk.
Is the ice-cream made with milk? (passive in the simple present)
Ice-cream men can eat ice-cream every day.
Can ice-cream men eat ice-cream every day? (modal verb in the simple present)

However, as positive sentences in the simple present or the simple past don’t already have an auxiliary verb, we use do as our auxiliary verb.

Example:
I like ice-cream.
Do you like ice-cream?

Verb Conjugation in Questions

Only the auxiliary verb do is conjugated in questions. In the simple present, we use does for the third person singular and do for all other persons and in the simple past we take did for all persons. The main verb remains in its basic form or infinitive form.

Example:
He eats an ice-cream every day.
Does he eat an ice-cream every day? (simple present – 3rd person singular)
She ate an ice-cream yesterday.
Did she eat an ice-cream yesterday? (simple past)

Questions without an Auxiliary Verb

We don’t an auxiliary verb for questions in the simple present/past when the main verb be. In this case, we simply invert the subject and verb positions to form the question,

Example:
I am/was addicted to ice-cream.
Are/Were you addicted to ice-cream?

When a question word is also the subject of a question, we don’t use an auxiliary verb. This is know as a subject questions, it happens when we ask who/what is performing the action. Be careful, that the verb is in the third person singular.

Example:
What tastes delicious? The ice-cream tastes delicious.
(but: What does the ice-cream taste like? The ice-cream tastes like strawberries.)
Who eats ice-cream every day? Jane and Phil eat ice-cream every day.
(but: Who do Jane and Phil eat ice-cream with? Jane and Phil eat ice-cream with Lorrie.)

Questions with “have”

In the case of questions that use the verb have, there are two possibilities. One option is to use the do along with the main verb have. This is the official method, and more commonly used in American English.

Example:
My mom has an ice-cream machine.
Does your mom have an ice-cream machine? (American English)

For questions about possession/belonging, though, it’s more common in British English to use the construction have got, in which have takes on the function of the helping verb, and is placed before the subject.

Example:
My mum has got an ice-cream machine.
Has your mum got an ice-cream machine? (British English)

Types of Questions

Yes/No Questions

Yes/no questions are questions without a question word: we can only answer them with yes or no. For questions of this sort, the auxiliary verb comes at the beginning of the sentence. If the question’s main verb is be, then be comes at the beginning of the sentence.

Example:
Do you like ice-cream?
Have you had an ice-cream today?
Is this your ice-cream?

Wh Questions

We construct wh questions exactly like yes/no questions, except we add the question word to the beginning of the sentence, before the auxiliary verb.

Example:
How often do you eat ice-cream?
What is your favourite kind of ice-cream?

In questions with a preposition, the preposition usually comes at the end of the sentence.

Example:
Who is the ice-cream for?

Common Question Words

question wordusageexample
who subject, object (person)

Who gave you the book?
Who did you give the book to?
Who did you see?

what

subject or object, if it’s not a person

What is it?
What did you see?
What are you doing?

what kind/sort/type of … no predetermined selection

What kind of clothes do you usually wear?

what day/colour/…

What day is it today?

which predetermined selection Which car do you like better – the red one or the blue one?
whose belonging/possession Whose car is it?
where place (location, direction) Where is the station?
Where are you going?
where … from place (origin) Where are you from?
when point in time When did you have breakfast?
how manner How are you?
How did you get home last night?

how old/much/long

for more detail How old are you?
How much is it?
why reason for an action Why are you so late?
what … for purpose of an action What do you need this for?

Who or Whom?

In colloquial language, who is commonly used both as subject and object. In formal language, however, it is still considered more correct to say whom when referring to the object of a sentence.

Example:
Who did you see?
Whom did you see?

If we use whom in a sentence with a preposition, the preposition often comes before the word whom.

Example:
Who did you give the book to?
To whom did you give the book?