What Is an Interrogative?

An interrogative is a word used to help form a question. The interrogative words are classified as determiners, pronouns, or adverbs. For example:
  • Which car do you want?
  • ("Which" is an interrogative determiner.)
  • What do you want?
  • ("Which" is an interrogative pronoun.)
  • When do you want it?
  • ("When" is an interrogative adverb.)

Table of Contents

  • The Three Types of Interrogative
  • (1) Interrogative Determiners ("What," "Which," and "Whose")
  • (2) Interrogative Pronouns ("What," "Which," "Who," "Whom," and "Whose")
  • (3) Interrogative Adverbs ("Why," "Where," "When," and "How")
  • More about the Term "Interrogative"
  • Why Interrogatives Are Important
  • Test Time!

The Three Types of Interrogative

interrogative examples
There are three types of interrogative:

(1) Interrogative Determiners ("What," "Which," and "Whose")

An interrogative determiner is a word that modifies a noun by asking a question. Interrogative determiners are called "interrogative adjectives" in traditional grammar.
  • What time is it?
  • Which shoes shall I wear?
  • Whose bag is this?
  • (Notice that these interrogative determiners all modify nouns ("time," "shoes, and "bag").)
Of course, interrogative determiners can also modify pronouns.
  • Whose one is this?
Read more about interrogative determiners.

(2) Interrogative Pronouns ("What," "Which," "Who," "Whom," and "Whose")

Interrogative pronouns stand alone; i.e., they do not modify nouns. This is how they differ from interrogative determiners. The answer to a question posed with an interrogative pronoun will be a noun.
  • What is the capital of Peru?
  • Which should I use?
  • Who is that boy?
  • Whom are you with?
  • Whose is still working?
  • (Notice that these interrogative pronouns do not modify nouns. Also, notice that they would be answered by a noun or, more likely, a noun phrase.) Read more about interrogative pronouns.

(3) Interrogative Adverbs ("Why," "Where," "When," and "How")

The answer to a question posed with an interrogative adverb will be an adverb or an adverbial phrase. In other words, it will be a reason (answering "why"), a place (answering "where"), a time (answering "when"), or a manner (answering "how").
  • Why should I believe you?
  • When will the bus arrive?
  • (Notice that these interrogative adverbs would all be answered by an adverb or, more likely, some words functioning as an adverb, i.e., an adverbial phrase or an adverbial clause)
Read more about interrogative adverbs.

More about the Term "Interrogative"

More generally, the term "interrogative" is applicable to any sentence or construction that asks a question.

The following all ask question. They are all examples of interrogative sentences.
  • That painting is excellent, isn't it?
  • Are you sure?
  • Do you want one lump or two?
  • Is it true or false?
  • Eh?
Read also about using interrogatives to form direct questions and indirect questions.

Why Interrogatives Are Important

Being able to use the various interrogatives is essential for obtaining the information you need. So, if you're learning or teaching English, you must understand how to form questions and how the interrogatives are used.

If you're a native English speaker, then you almost certainly use the interrogatives without giving the grammar a second thought. Nevertheless, here are three common writing issues related to the interrogatives.

(Issue 1) Do not confuse "who's" and "whose."

"Who's" is a contraction. It is short for "who is" or "who has." If you cannot expand your "who's" to "who is" or "who has," then it is wrong. "Whose," as we've covered, is either an interrogative determiner (in which case, it will modify a noun) or an interrogative pronoun (in which case, it will stand alone). For example:
  • Whose cake is this? correct tick
  • (Here, "whose" is an interrogative determiner.)
  • Whose is this? correct tick
  • (Here, "whose" is an interrogative pronoun.)
  • Who's cake is this? wrong cross
  • (You can't expand this "who's" to "who's" to "who is," so it is wrong. It should be "whose.")
Read more about "who's" and "whose."

(Issue 2) Avoid errors with "who" and "whom."

By the far the biggest issue with interrogative pronouns is confusing "who" and "whom."

You can only use "who" when it is the subject of a verb. If it's not the subject of a verb, you should be using "whom." For example:
  • Who saw the play? correct tick
  • (The subject of "saw" is "who." "Who" is correct.)
  • Who did you sit with? wrong cross
  • (The subject of "did sit with" is you not "who." "Who" is wrong.)
  • Whom do you know? correct tick
Read more about "who" and "whom".

(Issue 3) Don't use a question mark after a non-question. (Beware indirect questions!)

A common issue related to interrogatives is writers thinking a non-question is a question and using a question mark.
  • I want to know if it's true? wrong cross
  • I wonder if I'll ever see them again? wrong cross
  • (These are not questions but statements. They should end in periods (full stops).)
This error typically occurs when the statement contains an indirect question. An indirect question is a direct question embedded inside a statement or another question. Here, the embedded direct questions are "Is it true?" and "Will I ever see them again?". Read more about indirect questions.

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.