Interrogative Pronouns

Interrogative Pronouns

The main interrogative pronouns are what, which, who, whom, and whose. Interrogative pronouns are used to ask questions.

The other, less common interrogative pronouns are the same as the ones above but with the suffix -ever or -soever (e.g., whatever, whichever, whatsoever, whichsoever).

Easy Examples of Interrogative Pronouns

  • What is that?
  • Which is yours?
  • Who done it?
  • Whom shall we ask?
  • Whose is this?
  • Whatever did you say?
  • Whomsoever did you find?
  • Whosever is this?
The suffix -ever and -soever are used for emphasis or to show surprise. (The suffix -soever is less common as it considered old fashioned.)

Real-Life Examples of Interrogative Pronouns

  • What is originality? Undetected plagiarism. (Dean of St Paul's Cathedral William Inge)
  • What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. (William Shakespeare)
  • Which is worse, failing or never trying?
Interrogative pronouns can also be used to create indirect questions.
  • Do you know what this is?
  • (Here, the interrogative pronoun what is being used in an indirect question (bold), which is part of a wider question.)
  • I want to know what this is.
  • (Indirect questions can also feature in statements, i.e., in non-questions.)
Do not confuse interrogative pronouns with interrogative adjectives, which look the same as interrogative pronouns.
  • Which feat is the greater?
  • (This is not an interrogative pronoun. It is an interrogative adjective. The word Which modifies feat. Therefore, it's an adjective.)
Do not confuse interrogative pronouns with interrogative adverbs (how, when, why, where), which are also used to ask questions.
  • Who are you and how did you get in here?
  • I'm a locksmith. And...I'm a locksmith. (from the 1982 TV series "Police Squad!")
(In this example, the answer to the interrogative pronoun who is the noun phrase a locksmith. The answer to the interrogative adverb how is the unstated adverbial phrase by virtue of being a locksmith. The answer to a question starting with an interrogative pronoun will be a noun (typically a person, place or thing). The answer to a question starting with an interrogative adverb (how, when, why, where) will be an adverb (typically a manner, a time, a reason or a term linked to place, e.g., in the city.)

Why Should I Care about Interrogative Pronouns?

Mistakes involving interrogative pronouns are rare, but there are two good reasons to know about interrogative pronouns.

(Reason 1) Avoiding errors with who and whom

By the far the biggest issue with interrogative pronouns is using who when whom should be used.

Remember, you can only use who when it is the subject of a verb. This is a simpler idea than you might think. I, he, she, we and they are just like who because they are also used as the subjects of verbs (they're even called subjective pronouns). Me, him, her, us, them are just like whom because they are not used as the subjects of verbs (they're called objective pronouns).
  • Who knows her? [correct]
  • (The subject of knows is who. Who is correct.)
  • Who do you know? [wrong]
  • (The subject of know is you not who. Who is wrong.)
  • Whom do you know? [correct]
  • (This is covered in more detail in the section on personal pronouns.)

(Reason 2) Creating rhetorical questions

An interrogative pronoun can be used to ask a rhetorical question (a question for which no answer is expected). Posing a rhetorical question is an efficient and engaging way of making a point or introducing a new idea.
  • What is a weed? A weed is a plant whose virtues have never been discovered. (American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson)
  • (There a section on rhetorical questions.)

Key Points

  • When used to pose a question, who must be the subject of a verb in your question. If it's not, use whom.
  • To keep your writing succinct and engaging, consider using a rhetorical question to introduce a new idea before writing about it.
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