Question Formation in English - by Viv Quarry (

There are two basic types of questions in English.

1. 'Wh' questions ask for specific information and start with a question word.

What Which When Where Whereabouts Why Whose How

The most common question structure is: Question word + Auxiliary Verb + Object or Main Verb.

'Wh' questions usually have a FALLING INTONATION.


No verb



Present simple Whose is this? What do you do? I'm a teacher.
Present continuous   Where are you going? To the bank.
Past simple When were you there? When did she do that? Last night.
Past continuous   Who were playing? Flamengo & Vasco.
Pres. perf. simple   Why haven't you done your homework? Because I didn't have time.
Pres. perf. continuous   Which report have you been working on? The one you asked you asked me to.
Passive   Whereabouts were they found? On the side of the mountain.
will / would Who will be there? How will they get here? By train.
Can / could How could you? What could it be? It might be a UFO.

'What' can be followed by a noun and is usually used when there is an unlimited number of possibilities. 'Which' is normally used with a limited number of choices.

Eg. What size shoes do you take?

Which one do you like the most?

When asking about people it is better to use which. Eg. Which astronauts have landed on the moon?

'How' can combine with adjectives and adverbs.

How many (countables), How much (uncountables), How tall (height), How old (age), How big (size), How fast (speed), How often (frequency), How many times (number), How long (duration), How far (distance)

Prepositions often come at the end of a question.

Eg. What are you looking at? Which channel is the film on?

What are you afraid of? What schools did you go to?

Who did you dance with? What is it about?

Who did you give it to? Who was it written by?

Who is he getting married to? What did you do that for?

How long did you stay for? Who did you get that from?

Short reply questions with prepositions are also possible in English.

Eg. What with? What about? What for? Who to? Who from? Where to?

Subject Questions

Most questions ask for the object of a sentence.


Lee Oswald shot President Kennedy.

Who did Lee Oswald shoot? ANSWER = OBJECT (President Kennedy).

With the question words WHO, WHAT & WHICH, if the answer is the SUBJECT, there is NO AUXILIARY 'DO, DOES, DID and the WORD ORDER IS THE SAME AS A STATEMENT.

Who shot President Kennedy? ANSWER = SUBJECT (Lee Oswald).

Here are some more examples of subject questions:


Who broke the window? Peter (broke the window)

Who discovered America? Columbus (discovered America)

Which actors starred in Casablanca? Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall (starred in Casablanca).

Which switch operates this machine? The red switch (operates the machine).

What happened to you last night? Something terrible (happened to me last night).

In contrast, here are the object questions for the examples above:

What did Peter break?

Which continent did Columbus discover?

Which actors did Casablanca have in it?

What does this switch operate?

What did you do last night?

'Like' in questions

'LIKE' can be used as a VERB for preference and as a PREPOSITION for description.

What does she like doing at the weekend? (VERB) = What does she enjoy doing?

What is she like? (PREPOSITION) = Describe her character (and maybe her appearance).

What does she look like? (PREPOSITION) = Describe her appearance ONLY.


Eg. How is your mother? = Is your mother in good health.


What would you like to do next weekend? (VERB) = What do you want to do?

What is London like? (PREPOSITION) = Give me your general impressions of London.

What was the weather like? (PREPOSITION) = Describe the weather to me.

What was the food like? (PREPOSITION) = What did you think about the food?

What were the shops like in London? (PREPOSITION) = Tell me about the shops in London.

What did it look like? (PREPOSITION) = Give me a physical description of it.

2. 'Yes/No' questions ask for a positive or negative answer.

They normally start with an AUXILIARY or MODAL verb and are followed by


'Yes/no' questions normally have a RISING INTONATION.


No verb



Present simple Am I right? Do I do it like this? Yes, you do.
Present continuous   Is it working? Yes, it is.
Past simple Was she the manager? Did you enjoy it? Yes, I did.
Past continuous   Were they fighting? No, they weren't.
Pres. perf. simple   Have they had dinner yet? No, they haven't.
Pres. perf. continuous   Has she been working all day? Yes, she has.
Passive   Was it finished on time? No, it wasn't
will / would Will she be happy in her new job? Will you finish by 5.30? Yes, of course I will.
Can / could Could he be right? Can you pass me the salt, please? Yes, here you are.

Negative 'Yes/No' questions are used:

To show surprise:

Didn't you hear the bell? I rang it four times!

In exclamations:

Doesn't that dress look nice! (= That dress looks very nice)

When we expect the listener to agree with us:

Haven't we met somewhere before? (= I think that we have)

Be careful with the answers to negative questions:

Didn't Dave go to Canada? Yes. (He went there.)

No. (He didn't go there.)

Reply questions

Reply questions are formed of Auxiliary/modal verb + Subject and are used to show interest or surprise. They always have a strong RISING INTONATION.

Eg. A: He has a problem. A: I've finished! A: I can't do this.

B: Does he? B: Have you? B: Can't you?

A: Didn't you see his hand shaking? A: It's been done before. A: He'd like it.

B: Was it? B: Has it? B: Would he.

Question tags

Question tags have the same form as reply questions but are used either to ask for confirmation or a response.

If a positive statement is made, the question tag is negative.

Eg. You're Brazilian, aren't you?

If a negative statement is made, the question tag is positive.

Eg. You haven't finished yet, have you?

There are TWO TYPES of question tag.

1. This tag has a falling intonation and means "I'm sure I'm right, confirm it for me".

2. A question tag with a rising intonation means "I'm not sure, can you tell me if I'm right?"

With this type of question tag, it is better not to use contracted auxiliary and modal verbs.

Eg. You have brought the tickets with you, haven't you? (not "You've brought...").


After 'Let's....' the question tag is 'Shall we?'

Eg. Let's go out for a meal, shall we?

After the imperative the question tag is 'Will you?'

Eg. Open the door for me, will you? Don't be late, will you?

A positive question tag can follow a positive statement when expressing interest or surprise.

Eg. Oh, You think he'll win, do you?

For information on indirect questions see the worksheet on indirect and reported speech.

Back to questions exercises

Back to Grammar worksheets