Interrogative adjectives, pronouns and adverbs
1. Interrogative adjectives and pronouns:
For persons:    subject        who (pro.)
                        object          whom, who (pro.)
                        possessive   whose (pro. and adj.)
For things:       subject        what (pro.and adj.)
For persons or things when choice is restricted:
                         subject        which (pro. and adj.)
                         object          which (pro. and adj.)

what (adjective) can be used for persons. All these adjectives and pronouns have the same form for singular and plural.

Note that who, whose + noun, what, which when used as subjects are normally followed by an affirmative, not an interrogative verb:

Who pays the bills? Ann pays them/Ann does.

Whose horse won? The queen's horse won/The queen's horse did.
Which of your brothers is getting married? Tom is.

i.e. when we wish to find out who performs/performed/will perform an action, we use who? whose? which? with an affirmative verb.

what? can be used similarly:

what happened?

what delayed you?
what went wrong?

Possible answer: A lorry overturned on the road and blocked it, so all the traffic was held up.

(But with who/what etc. + be + noun/pronoun questions the interrogative verb is used: What day is it? We see that is here is interrogative when we put the question into reported speech and it becomes He wants to know what day it is.)

Examples of the use of who, whom, whose, which and what in questions:

A who,whom, whose

who as subject
Who keeps the keys? The caretaker keeps them.
Who took my gun? Tom took it.
Who are these boys? They are Bill's students.

who/whom as object

Who/Whom did you see? I saw the secretary.
Who/Whom did she pay? She paid Tom and me.
Who did they speak to? (i.e. to whom did they speak?) They spoke to Mary.


Whose books are these? (adj.) They are Ann's.
Whose are these? (pro.) They are Ann's.
Whose umbrella did you borrow? I borrowed Bill's.
Whose car broke down? George's car. (affirmative verb)

B what

As subject:
What delayed you? (pro.) The storm delayed us.
As object:
What paper do you read? (adj.) I read 'The Daily Telegraph'.
What did they eat? (pro.) They ate rice.
What did they eat it with? (pro.) They ate it with chopsticks.

C which

As subject:
Which of them arrived first? (affirmative verb)
Which of them is the eldest? (pro.) Mary is the eldest.
As object:
Which do you like best? (pro.) I like Tom best.
Which university did he go to? (adj.) He went to Oxford.

2. who and whom as objects of verbs and prepositions

A As direct objects

whom is the technically correct form and is used in formal written and spoken English. In ordinary conversation, however, we almost always use who, so that we can say:
Whom did you meet? (formal) or Whom did you meet? (informal).
There is no difference in meaning but the second is much more usual than the first. similarly we can say:
Whom did you help? or Who did you help?

B After prepositions

In formal English the preposition is immediately followed by whom:
With whom did you go?
To whom were you speaking?
But in ordinary spoken English we usually move the preposition to the end of the sentence. The whom then normally changes to who:
Who did you go with?
Who were you speaking to?

3. what (adjective and pronoun)

A what is general interrogative used for things:
What time is it?
What street is this?
What did you say?
What does he want?

When what is used with prepositions, the preposition is normally placed at the end of the sentence, as shown above:

What did you open it with? I opened it with my knife.

B what ... for? = why

What did you do that for? = Why did you do it?

C what + be ... like? is a request for a description and can be used for things or people:

What was the exam like? It was very difficult.
What was the weather like? It was very difficult.
What was the weather like? It was terrible.
What's the food like in your hostel?

Used of people it may concern either appearance or character:

What is he like? He's a friendly sort of man or He's a tall man with a grey beard.
What are your students like? they're very talkative.
what does he/it look like? concerns appearance only, and can also mean 'What does he/it resemble?'
What does he look like? He is tall and thin and very badly dressed.
He looks like a scarecrow.
What does it look like? It's black and shiny. It looks like coal.

D what is he? = What is his profession?

What is his father? He was a tailor.
what (adjective) used for persons is possible but not common:
What men are you talking about? is possible, but
Who are you talking about? would be much more usual.

E what (adjective) is very common in questions about measurements. It is used in this way chiefly with nouns: age, size, weight, length, breadth, width, height, depth:

What height is your room? or What is the height of your room?
What age is he?
What size is the parcel?
What is the depth of the lake?
Note that the verb to be is always used here.
(Such questions can also be expressed by how with an adjective: How high is your room?)

4. which compared with who and what

who is general interrogative pronoun for persons.
what is general interrogative pronoun and adjective used mainly for things.
which (pronoun and adjective) is used instead of who and what when the choice is restricted.

A Examples of which and what used for things:

What will you have to drink?
We have gin, whisky and sherry: which will you have?
What does it cost to get to Scotland?
It depends on how you go. There are several ways of getting there.
Which (way) is the cheapest or Which is the cheapest (way)?
I've seen the play and the film.
What did you think of them? Which (of them) did you like best?

B Examples of which and who used for people:

Who do you want to speak to?
I want to speak Mr. Smith.
We have two Smiths here: John and Joe. Which (of them) do you want?
which (pronoun) of people is not used alone as subject of a verb.
TEACHER (to a class): Which of you knows the formula? ('of you' is essential).
Who knows the formula? would also be possible.

C which (adjective) can be used of people when there is only a very slight idea of restriction:

Which poet (of all the poets) do you like best?
what would be possible here and would be more logical. But what (adjective) for people is normally avoided.

5. Interrogative adverbs

These are: why, when, where, how

A why? means 'for what reason?' and is usually answered by 'because':

Why was he late? Because he missed the bus.

B when? means 'at what time?':

When do you get up? 7 a.m.

C where? means 'in what place?':

Where do you live? In London.

D how? means 'in what way?';

How did you come? I came by plane.
How do you start the engine? You press this button.

how can also be used

1 With adjectives, as an alternative to what followed by a noun:

How old is he?

How high is Mount Everest? it is over eight thousand metres high.
How wide is the river? It is fifty metres wide.
How long does it take to fly from London to Paris?

2 With much and many:

How much do you want?
How many pictures did you buy?

3 With adverbs:

How fast does he drive? Much too fast.
How often do you go abroad? I go every year.
How quickly can you say 'Tottenham Court Road'? I can say it in a quarter of a second.

Note that How is she? is an inquiry about her health. A possible answer is She is very well. But What is she like? is a request for a description. A possible answer is She is tall and dark with green eyes.

Do not confuse How are you? with How do you do? When two people are introduced each says How do you do? It is greeting rather than a question.

6. ever placed after who, what, where, why, when, how

Where ever have you been? I've been looking for you everywhere!
Who ever told you to ask me to lend you the money? I've no money at all!

ever here is not necessary in the sentence but is added to emphasize the speaker's surprise/ astonishment/ anger/irritation/ dismay. It has the same meaning as on earth/in the world.

Such sentences are always spoken emphatically and the intonation will convey the speaker's emotion:

Why ever did you wash it in boiling water? (dismay)
Who ever are you? (The other person is presumably an intruder.)
Who ever left the door open? (What stupid person left it open?)
Where ever have you put my briefcase? i can't find it anywhere.
What ever are you doing in my car? (astonishment/annoyance)
When ever did you leave home? You must have left very early to be here by nine.
How ever did he manage to escape unhurt? The car was a complete wreck.
Note also why ever not? and what ever for?
You mustn't wear anything green.
Why ever not? (I can't understand the reason for this prohibition.)
Bring a knife to class tomorrow.
Whatever for? (I can't understand what I need a knife for.)
(For whoever, whichever, whatever etc. written as one word.

Mr. Gibbs' English © 2013. All Rights Reserved.