Understand the Uses of Interrogative Pronouns
Interrogative words such as who, what, which, and whom can function either as interrogative pronouns or as relative pronounsOpens in new window.
The interrogative pronouns—who, whose, whom, which, and what—are used in introducing questions.
- Who is the subjective (nominative) form Opens in new window, used in referring to persons.
- Whom is the objective form Opens in new window, used in referring to persons or things and differentiating one object Opens in new window from another.
- What is used in referring to things.
- Whose / whoever are used in questions relating to persons.
Furthermore, the interrogative pronouns whose, which, and what can also serve as adjectivesOpens in new window.
In the following sentences, the interrogative words (in emphasis) illustrate how interrogative pronouns are used:
- Who received the invoice before approving it?
(Here, who → asks a question; it refers to persons and represents the subject of the verb ‘received’)
- Whom did you inform about the new software?
(Whom → asks a question; it refers to persons and represents object of the verb ‘inform’ [You did inform whom about the new software?])
- Which has most elongated battery life: a Samsung S series or a HTC One series?
(Which→ asks a question; it refers to things and differentiates one object from another.)
- What are the advantages of a 401k savings plan?
(What → asks a question; it generally refers to things)
- There is a misplaced cell phone on the counter. Whose is it?
(Whose → asks a question; it generally refers to persons)
- Whatever is the outcome?
(Whatever → asks a question; it generally refers to things)
Rules for Correct Uses of Interrogative Words
Rule #1 Use who or whoever if a nominative or subject pronounOpens in new window is needed.For Example:
- Have you chosen who needs to go to the warehouse?
(He needs to go to the warehouse; therefore, using who is correct)
- Whoever resumes on duty first will handle the case.
(He will resume on duty first; therefore, using whoever is correct)
Sometimes, to avoid confusion, a better solution would demand you rephrase the sentence so you don’t need either whoever or whomever.
Rule #2 Use whom or whomever if an objective pronounOpens in new window is needed.For Example:
I’ll like to know whom we are transferring to the headquarters.
(They are transferring him to the headquarters; therefore, using whom is correct)
- Keith will help whomever he can.
(He can help me; therefore, using whomever is correct)
Rule #3 Whose or Who’s — Whose is the possessive form of the pronoun who. Who’s is the contraction for who is or who has.
Use who’s only if you can substitute who is or who has; otherwise, use whose.For Example:
- Whose bag is this? (Not who’s)
- Who’s (Who is) talking on the radio? (Not whose)
Elaborate Studies on Uses of Interrogative Words
Apart from serving as interrogative pronouns, the interrogative words who, whose, which, and what can also serve other purposes.
1. Who is used to introduce independent and also dependent questions.For Example:
- Who is coming to mow the flowers? (independent question)
- Do you know who took the book? (dependent question)
2. Whose is usually used as an attributive (adjective). In some cases, it can also serve as an independent possessive.For Example:
- Whose book is this? → whose is serving an attributive adjective
- Whose is this book? → whose is serving as an independent posssessive
3. What has no other form than itself. It is used both as subject and as adjective. As a subject it takes only a singular verb, but with a plural nominal predicate it is followed by are or were. It may also be used with a personal subject when more information is required.Observe the following uses:
- What are you doing?
- She wanted to know what he was doing.
- What are the points to be noted?
- What is the problem?
- What do you want to do?
- What were you taking this medicine for?
- What are you? (What is your occupation?)
- What is he?
Sometimes what may be used attributively with nounsOpens in new window indicating persons or things.For Example:
- What man in your place wouldn’t have told so?
- He wanted to know what books I bought.
What is also used with phrases like sort of, kind of, manner of, to indicate a group or type of people or things that are similar in a particular way.For Example:
- What sort of fruits are these?
- What kind of woman is she?
- What manner of woman could face such a situation?
(here, manner of means “kind of”)
What is used in the idioms “and what not” and “what have you” both meaning “and other things of same kind”.For Example:
- This packet contains sweets, biscuits, snacks and what not.
- We need, sweets snacks and what have you for the party.
What may also be used attributively in exclamatory expressions.For Example:
- What a sight it is!
- What a pity!
- What a great day!
- What a beautiful scenery!
What is usually used for something other than a person only.For Example:
- What have you got?
- What did you say?
- What was the matter?
- What are the differences between these two things?
Note carefully the differences in meanings of the following sentences.
- Who is your father? → meaning name.
- What is your father? → meaning occupation
- Which is your father? → selection from among a group of people
What is not used in a selective sense. Only which is used in that sense.For Example:
- Which painting is that? → wrong
- What painting is that? → correct
4. WhomFor Example:
- Who took it?
- Whom did you inform? (object of the verb ‘inform’)
- Of whom are you speaking? (object of the preposition ‘of’ )
Contemporary English grammarians prefer ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’ although it is ungrammatical.Consider these examples:
- Who are you speaking of?
- Who did you inform?
In the case of indirect object whom (who) is accompanied by the preposition ‘to’.For Example:
- To whom did you give the pen?
- Who (whom) did you give the pen to?
The who, whom, and whose are used for persons only.For Example:
- Who is your teacher (requesting for name)
- Whom do you want to see?
- Whose notebook is this?
Which is used for persons and things. It implies selection from among more than one person or thing of a limited number and has only one form.
It has no genitive form either. However, when a selection is not possible use what instead of which.For Example:
- Which among the visitors is your father? (from among a limited number)
- Which of these books you have read?
- Which shirt will you wear today?
- Which of you has been to Chennai?
- Will you tell me what books are to be bought? (If there is collection of books)