There are other interrogative pronouns as well that are used for emphatic purposes, which we’ll cover later in this section.
Using interrogative pronouns
Most often, interrogative pronouns are used in direct questions, representing the person or thing that is being asked about. In direct questions, the interrogative pronoun usually comes at or near the beginning of the interrogative clause, acting as either the subject or object of the sentence. For example:
- “Who is coming to the party tonight?” (subject)
- “Whom did you ask to fill in for Mr. Smith?” (object)*
- “Whose is this computer?” (subject)
- “So, which will it be: $10,000 or a new sports car?” (object)
- “What do you expect me to do, exactly?” (object)
An interrogative pronoun is easy to identify because it can stand on its own in a sentence and takes the grammatical function of a noun. Other question words, on the other hand, act as adverbs when they stand alone, as in:
- “How did you find me?” (How modifies the verb find.)
- “When are we leaving?” (When modifies the verb leaving.)
- “Why did we stay?” (Why modifies the verb stay.)
(*Usage Note: Whom is becoming increasingly rare in modern English. Although it is technically more accurate to use whom when it functions as the object of a verb and who when it functions as the subject, it is now much more common to use who in both cases.)
Interrogative pronouns can also appear within indirect questions. When this happens, they appear in the middle of the sentence. Indirect questions are sometimes used to ask something in a more polite way, as in:
- “Could you tell me whose these are?”
- “Would you mind telling me which I’m supposed to bring?”
- “Do you know what we’re doing here?”
Other times, indirect questions are used for emphasis to convey surprise:
- “She wants who to come to the party?”
- “You’re going to do what in New York City?”
- “He’s going to ask whom out on a date?”
In such cases, emphasis is put on the interrogative pronoun—we can hear the stress on the words when we say the sentences aloud.
Interrogative pronouns also appear in the middle of reported questions. Reported questions are actually a form of declarative sentences using reported speech (also called indirect speech): they tell us about something someone else asked, but do not ask a question themselves. As such, they do not end in a question mark. For example:
- “She wants to know whose these are.”
- “He wondered which is correct.”
- “I asked you what we were supposed to do today.”
- “She was wondering who would be coming tomorrow.”
- “They asked whom to consult in the matter.”
The speaker in each of the examples isn’t asking an actual question, but rather is reporting or clarifying a question that has already been asked.
Other interrogative pronouns
There are technically seven other interrogative pronouns—whoever, whomever, whichever, whatever, whatsoever, whosoever, and whomsoever—that are used for emphatic purposes, but they are typically used in more formal or old-fashioned English. For example:
- “Whoever would believe such a story?”
- “Whatever could I have done to make you so angry?”
- “Whomever did you ask to accompany you to the gala on such short notice?”
- “Whichever will the gentleman choose, I wonder?
The last three, whatsoever, whosoever, and whomsoever, are synonymous with whatever, whoever, and whomever. However, they are considered even more antiquated in modern English, bordering on archaic. It is uncommon to come across them even in more formal speech or writing.
Other grammatical roles
Many of the interrogative pronouns we’ve examined above often serve other grammatical functions in different contexts. It’s important to know the difference between them.
Three of the interrogative pronouns—whose, which, and what—can also function as interrogative adjectives, meaning they come before and modify another noun. An easy way to be sure whether you are dealing with an interrogative adjective or an interrogative pronoun is to check whether the question word is immediately followed by a noun that it modifies. For example:
- “What book is your favorite?”
In this example, what is immediately followed by the noun book, which it is modifying. We can be sure that, in this case, what is a possessive adjective.
- “What are you reading?”
In this sentence, what is not immediately followed by a noun that it modifies, which means that it is an interrogative pronoun.
Here are some other examples:
- “Which shirt should I wear?” (interrogative adjective)
- “Which would you choose if you were me?” (interrogative pronoun)
- “Whose book is this on the table?” (interrogative adjective)
- “Whose is this that I’m holding?” (interrogative pronoun)
Who, whom, which, and whose can also be used as relative pronouns in declarative sentences. They are not considered interrogative in this form, because they are no longer associated with a question; rather, they are used to help clarify whom or what a sentence is talking about, or else give extra information about it. For example:
- “I helped the old man who lives down the road with his groceries.”
- “The computer, which belonged to my brother, is very slow.”
- “Could the person whose car is parked outside please move it?”
- “A man who/whom I had never met before greeted me in the street.”
In addition, the pronouns whoever, whichever, and whatever are also used as indefinite relative pronouns. They are much more commonly used in this way in modern English than they are as interrogative pronouns. For example:
“Do whatever you please; I don’t care.”
“Whoever decides to join us is more than welcome.”
“Take whichever route is fastest.”
Whomever can also be used in this way when the pronoun functions as an object, as in:
- “Be with whomever makes you happy.”
However, this is becoming increasingly uncommon, with whoever more often being used instead.