How to ask questions in English

How to ask questions in English

by Laura Jones

Updated August 25, 2022

Knowing how to ask questions in English is a key skill. Most of us ask questions all the time, whether we want permission to eat the last slice of cake, to keep on top of the latest gossip in our neighborhood, or just to know what time a movie starts. For people who are learning English, getting the structure right can be tricky, so we’re going to talk about how to form questions in English and give you lots of examples.

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What is a question?

Before we get started, we need to know the difference between a statement and a question. When we ask questions, we are requesting information about something. Statements give information. Take a look at this exchange:

Question: How are you? 

Statement: I’m fine, thanks. 

There are different ways to ask questions depending on the information we want to get. We’re focusing on yes/no questions and wh- questions.

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Yes/no questions

The first type of question we’re looking at are yes/no questions. These are also called closed questions because the answer is either yes or no (or maybe!). To form a yes/no question, we use a modal verb or a form of be, have, or do at the beginning of the question. 

To know which of these verbs to use, you need to think about the statement. If the statement contains the verbs be, have or a modal verb, you put that word before the subject. This is called inversion. The structure is: modal/auxiliary verb + subject + verb. 

StatementQuestion: Auxiliary/modal verbsubjectverb
You can swim.Canyouswim?
She is happy.Isshehappy?
They might come.Mighttheycome?
You would enjoy it.Wouldyouenjoyit?

When the statement does not contain any of those verbs, we add a form of the verb ‘do’ at the beginning of the statement and we use the base form of the verb. 

You like parrots. Do you like parrots?

He walks home. Does he walk home?

They eat meat. Do they eat meat?

Here are some examples of yes/no questions in other tenses. 

StatementYes/no question
Present continuousWe are working.Are we working?
Present perfectYou have seen that play.Have you seen that play?
Past simpleKerry went home. Did Kerry go home?
Past continuousThey were chatting.Were they chatting?
Past perfectHe had left.Had he left?
Future simpleJames will help.Will James help?
Future continuousWe will be eating then.Will we be eating then?
Future perfectI will have finished by then.Will I have finished by then?

Wh- questions

Wh- questions are open questions. The answer is not yes or no. To form wh- questions, we use a question word and we invert the subject and the verb. The wh- question words are: 

  • who
  • what
  • when
  • where
  • why
  • how

Here is the structure: Wh- word + auxiliary/modal verb + subject [+ verb].

Wh- wordauxiliary/modal verbsubjectverb
Whereareyougoing?
Whenwilltheybehere?
WhydidKieratellthem?

Here are some examples of wh- questions in different tenses. 

Present simpleWho do you spend the most time with?
Present continuousWhat are you doing right now?
Present perfectWhere have you been?
Past simpleWhy did you leave?
Past continuousHow were they feeling?
Past perfectWhen had you last visited them before you went yesterday?
Future simpleWho will Claire ask to help her?
Future continuousWhere will we be living in two years’ time?
Future perfectWhen will you have finished that book?

Ready to start asking questions in English?

We hope you feel more confident about asking questions in different tenses in English now. You should be able to find out what your best friend did last night, ask your dog what she’s chewing (she might not answer), and find out what your classmates are up to that night, all using the right grammatical structures.

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Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.

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