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I spent some time looking for a complete list of English question words, that is, words that start questions.  I couldn’t find one, so I decided to make one.  There are 14 question words (aka interrogative words) in English. Interestingly, only one starts with something other than a “W”.  Here it is, with definitions:

The Common Six:
Who
What
Where
When
Why
How

The Rest
Which
Wherefore
Whatever
Whom
Whose
Wherewith
Whither
Whence

If you know of any English question words I’ve missed, let me know, but I don’t think there are any.  I would also love to learn about question words in other languages that don’t have a direct English translation.

Here’s what they mean:

1. Who: Question about a person or entity.

2. What: Question about a thing, value, action or other object.

3. Where: Question about location or source. Sometimes used in an intangible way: “Where did you get that idea?”

4. When: Question about time or duration.

5. Why: Question about rationale, reason or motivation. Tends to be the hardest question to answer, asked often by kids, and can often recurse (i.e. If that’s the answer, then why...)

6. How: Question about method or plan, request for explanation. Special note: The phrase “How come” doesn’t mean how. It is, oddly, a synonym for “why”.

7. Which: Question about identifying a particular selection from among numerous things.

8. Wherefore: Old way of asking why. Does not mean the question is about location.  Most famously used in Romeo and Juliet. “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” is Juliet wondering why Romeo had the bad luck to be born as “Romeo” instead of as someone she could bring home to her parents.

9. Whatever: Old way of asking “what,” but more dramatic.  “Whatever shall we do?” is probably the most common usage nowadays.

10. Whom: This is the objective form of “who,” and if you’re starting a question with it, you’re probably also dangling a preposition, which some grammarians say is a bad thing. For example, “Whom will you give the book to?” is correct, but “To whom will you give the book?” is correcter. 😊

11. Whose: The genitive form of “who” and if you ask me why I know that I will simply smile and nod.

12. Wherewith: Old way of asking “By what means?” or in other words, “How?”  But it’s also sometimes used to mean “With what?” as in this example: “Wherewith shall it be salted?”

I didn’t make that example. It’s from The Bible, and it’s a really stupid example.  Like, I bet it will be salted ... with salt.  And why ask about salt? Is salt the only thing they asked questions about in Biblical times? Anyway, it’s just an example.  Move on.

13. Whither: Old way of asking “where”.  “Whither” implies a question not just about location, but about movement towards that location.  “Whither are you traveling?” would be a really old way of hitchhiking. Both this and the next word have direct German translations, and the Germans still use both today. I don’t know why.

14. Whence: Old way of asking where, that means “From where.”  “Whence” and “whither” are both really rarely used today, but whence sounds even more ridiculously old.  “Whence comest thou, good sir?” you might hear at a Renaissance Faire by someone trying to sell you a beaded leather codpiece.

Don’t say “From whence”—it’s redundant.



 
 

 

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Overheard

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