‘Interrogative pronoun’ is a rather scary grammatical term but its meaning is really quite simple. Interrogative pronouns are question words, which take the place of a noun (pro-noun) in the sentence. Interrogative simply means questioning. A helpful way to remember this is to think of the meaning of the word interrogation — a forceful way of asking questions.
Take the sentence “Alice fell down the rabbit hole.” Just as I might use the personal pronoun “she” instead of the name Alice, if I don’t know who fell down the rabbit hole, I could use “who” in place of “Alice”. “Who fell down the rabbit hole?”
So when we pose a question, the interrogative pronoun is the word we use in place of the thing that we don’t yet know, i.e. what, which, who, whom and whose. The interrogatives are often called ‘wh-words’ because most of them begin with ‘wh’.
You might be wondering about why, where, when and how, but they are interrogative adverbs because they ask questions, the answers to which will be adverbs, not nouns.
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“What” is used to ask about things.
What is this?
What is that?
What is love?
“Which” is used when asking questions where the answer is one of two or more choices or possibilities.
Which of your uncles is the grumpy one?
Which do you prefer, beer or wine?
Which dress are you wearing to the party?
Who and whom
Both “who” and “whom” are used to ask about people. The tricky part is deciding when to use who and when to use whom.
Why for instance, did the Baha Men ask “who let the dogs out?” Rather than asking “whom let the dogs out?” And why is Hemmingway’s masterwork novel “For whom the bell tolls,” not entitled “For who the bell tolls”.
This confuses even many native English speakers but the rule isn’t terribly complicated. Who indicates the subject of a verb, i.e. the doer in the sentence, whereas whom indicates the object; the person to whom something is done.
For instance, if you ask: “Who robbed the banker?” You are asking about the person who did the robbing. If you wanted to ask who was the object (or in this case the unfortunate victim) you would ask: “Whom did the they rob?”
A lot of native English speakers would get this wrong. Languages do change and “whom” may be one of those words that are becoming archaic!
Whose is used to ask questions about ownership, possession or a relationship, as well as simply functioning as a possessive pronoun.
Whose coat is hanging in the hall?
Whose dirty dishes are left in the sink?
Whose parents are sitting in the front row?
Be sure not to confuse “whose” and “who’s”. Remember: who’s = who is. As in: “Who’s (who is) coming to the concert tomorrow?” or “The man who’s (who is) jumping into the canal must be crazy.”
Questions, questions and more questions
Pronouns can be tricky, but when it comes to getting the hang of interrogative pronouns, all you can do is keep on asking questions! English grammar is rarely easy and just like in all languages there are a lot of different types of pronouns which we use instead of nouns to shorten our sentences and communicate more efficiently. Fortunately, there is no shortage of resources available to help you master them.
Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.