I . Modern English Formation of Yes/No and WH-Questions

A. The most basic (and earliest) rule was simply: invert the order of the subject and any tensed verb or auxiliary.

The king rode to London. --> Rode the king to London?
She has eaten. --> Has she eaten?

In contemporary English, if the base sentence already has an auxiliary, as in the second sentence, therešs nothing more to do.

B. The Modern Rule for base sentences without an auxiliary:

  1. Insert stand-in do; the tense automatically jumps to the auxiliary:

    The king rode to London. --> The king did ride to London.

    Note that the result of this step is similar to the Early Modern sentences with non-emphatic do.

  2. Invert subject and the verb marked for tense, which is the auxiliary (the basic rule for question formation):
  3. The king did ride to London. --> Did the king ride to London?


II. Formation of WH-questions

The basic rule
  1. The source of the question is assumed to have the form of a declarative sentence:

    The citizens said what.

    In fact, you can form a particular kind of emphatic question from this sentence simply by changing its intonation:

    The citizens said WHAT?

    The WH-word stands for missing information--whatever the citizens were saying ("Long live the king!" "Off with the kingšs head!" "Letšs get the king to declare this a national holiday!" ... etc.)

  2. Step one, which is shared by nominal WH-clauses: move the WH-word to the front of the clause:

    The citizens said what. --> What the citizens said.

  3. Steps two and three are shared by yes/no questions.

    Step two: add stand-in do if the base sentence does not already have an auxiliary, and the tense automatically jumps onto the auxiliary.

    What the citizens said. --> What the citizens did say.
    Step three: invert subject and tensed verb, the auxiliary:

    What the citizens did say --> What did the citizens say?

    Note that did and the citizens change place, because the citizens is the subject of the base sentence. (The citizens said what)

    When the WH-word is subject of the sentence, it doesn't move, and there is no stand-in do or subject-verb inversion. Compare: Who gave you the present? from the base sentence Who gave you the present. with who as subject.

Questions with WH-determiners

When the WH-word is a determiner (which, what ) the determiner is moved to the head of the clause along with the rest of the NP.

You saw which movie. --> Which movie did you see?
She wore what dress. --> What dress did she wear?
She bought which dress on sale.--> Which dress that she bought on sale did she wear?

WH-questions with prepositional phrases.

Again, the base is a declarative sentence with some information missing, and the WH-word stands in for the missing information; for example:

She gave the book to who(m).

Here, speakers have two choices.

  1. Move the whole prepositional phrase to the front of the clause (applying stand-in do and subject-verb inversion) :

    She gave the book to who(m). -->

    To whom did she give the book?
    ?To who did she give the book?

  2. OR move ONLY the WH-word, stranding the preposition at the end of the sentence:

    She gave the book to who(m) -->

    Who did she give the book to?
    Whom did she give the book to?

    Option 1 is the more formal, and generally speakers or writers who chose it keep the objective case marking on the WH-word whom, which is why I marked to who ... etc. with a question mark.

    Option 2, though perfectly grammatical, is often stigmatized as "ending a sentence with a preposition." It's been an option for English speakers for hundreds of years, however, and the "Don't end a sentence with a preposition" injunction is a good example of a usage rule imposed artificially on formal English. In such sentences, it sounds more natural--especially in colloquial speech--to drop the objective case marking and use who, but sentences with whom don't sound completely unnatural.

    Note that both versions of this question share the same diagram:


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    Comments to: Sara Kimball
    Last updated January, 2001