Question Word “What” in English Grammar


The Importance of Understanding the Use of “What” in English Grammar

As one of the most commonly used question words in English, it is essential to have a good understanding of how and when to use “what”.

 The word “what” can be used to ask for information about things, actions, or ideas.

 Therefore, mastering its use will help you communicate more effectively and efficiently. 

Definition of the Question Word “What”

The question word “what” is used to inquire about specific information concerning something. 

It is often used to obtain clarification, facts or details of something previously mentioned. 

For instance, if you want someone to specify what they are referring to when they say ‘the thing,’ you may ask them:

 ‘What thing?’ Moreover, unlike other interrogative pronouns like ‘who,’ ‘whom,’ and ‘whose’ that are limited to people only, “what” can refer both to objects and abstract concepts such as ideas and events. 

The Importance of Understanding the Use of “What” in English Grammar

Understanding how and when to use the question word “what” is essential because it helps individuals communicate their thoughts effectively. 

Moreover, it enables learners of the English language not only to comprehend but also respond appropriately during conversations with native speakers. 

A good understanding of “what” helps avoid misunderstandings that sometimes occur due to misinterpretations or misconceptions about what has been said.

 Furthermore, It also assists people in identifying key points while reading comprehension exercises and answering questions correctly. 

Basic Usage of “What”

The question word “what” is one of the most commonly used words in English grammar.

 It is used to ask questions about things, actions, and ideas. 

Understanding how to use “what” correctly is essential for effective communication in English.

 In this section, we will look at some of the basic ways that “what” can be used in English grammar. 

Forming questions with “what”

To form a question with “what,” simply place it at the beginning of a sentence followed by a verb and then the subject. 

For example, “What are you doing?” or “What do you like?”. 

This structure can be used to ask about things (“What’s your favorite color?”), actions (“What did you do yesterday?”), and ideas (“What do you think about this idea?”). 

Using “what” to ask about things, actions, and ideas

“What” can be used to ask about a wide range of topics. 

For example, it can be used to ask about people’s hobbies 

(“What do you like doing in your free time?”), 

their preferences (“What type of music do you listen to?”),

 or their experiences (“What was your first job like?”).

 It can also be used to ask more abstract questions such as opinions or beliefs on certain topics: 

“What do you think is the most important problem facing society today?” 

Examples of basic usage

Here are some examples of basic usage: 

“What is your name?”

“What time is it?”

“What did you eat for breakfast?”

“What color is your car?”

“What are your plans for the weekend?”

As you can see, “what” is a versatile and useful word in English grammar. 

Its basic usage forms the foundation of many more advanced uses, which we will explore in the next section. 

Advanced Usage of “What”

Using “what” in Indirect Questions

Indirect questions are questions that are formed within another sentence. 

In using “what” in indirect questions, the word order changes from that of a typical question. 

For example, instead of saying, 

“What time is it?” as a direct question, we can ask indirectly by saying “Do you know what time it is?” In this case, the subject pronoun “you” comes before the verb “know”. 

Additionally, unlike direct questions where the subject and verb inversion occurs to form a question i.e., “is it time?” in an indirect question this does not happen as we use an auxiliary verb – do/does/did – before the subject to form a question like “Do you know…?” 

Using “what” with Prepositions

Prepositions are words used to describe relationships between nouns.

 When using prepositions with “what”, it becomes important to choose the right preposition for clarity. 

For example, we say “What are you thinking about?” instead of asking “What are you thinking on?”. 

Similarly, we would ask “What did you talk about?” instead of saying ” What did you talk on?”. 

Using “what” in Exclamations

Exclamatory sentences express strong emotions or surprise and can be used with any type of sentence structure. 

They follow an exclamation mark at the end. 

Using ‘what’ in exclamations helps us express surprise or delight about something specific; 

for instance: 

– What fantastic news! 

– What a beautiful day! 

– What amazing people! 

Examples of Advanced Usage

Let’s take some examples to understand advanced usage better: 

– Indirect Question: 

Do you know what she wants for her birthday? 

– Preposition:

 What are you waiting for? 

– Exclamation: 

What an incredible feat of engineering!

 Advanced usage of “what” in English grammar can be challenging to master, and it takes practice to use it correctly.

 However, with the right mindset, a lot of reading, and deliberate effort in practicing writing and speaking, you will become proficient in the use of “what” in no time. 

  Subtopics on “What” 

 Using “what” in idiomatic expressions 

Idiomatic expressions are phrases used in a language that do not have a literal meaning and can be confusing to non-native speakers.

 The use of “what” in idiomatic expressions is common in English. 

For instance, the phrase “what’s up?” is an informal way of asking how someone is doing. 

Other examples include “what’s the catch?” which means to ask about the hidden problem with something, and “what are you getting at?” 

which means to ask for clarity or explanation about what someone is implying. 

 Using “what” with phrasal verbs 

Phrasal verbs are combinations of verbs and particles (prepositions or adverbs) that have a different meaning from the individual words themselves.

 The use of “what” with phrasal verbs may seem tricky, but it becomes easy with practice.

 For example, using “what do you make of something” means asking for an opinion or interpretation, while using “What are you getting at?” means to ask for clarity or explanation about what someone is implying. 

 Differences between using “which” and “what” 

While both words could be used as question words, there are differences between them.

 Generally speaking: We use “which” when we have a limited number of choices; we use “what” when we don’t know what the options are or when there is an infinite amount of options. Consider these examples: 

– Which one do you want? (You already know there are specific options) 

– What do you want? (The person could choose anything) 

 Rarely known small details about the word “what” 

The word ‘’What’’ has several meanings depending on its context.

 It can be used as a pronoun, adjective, adverb and conjunction. Examples of the different usages include: 

– As a pronoun: 

What you see is what you get. 

– As an adjective:

 What time is it? 

– As an adverb: 

What I need now is a good rest. 

– As a conjunction: 

I don’t care what they say. 


Mastering the use of “what” in English grammar is essential for effective communication. 

By understanding basic usage, advanced usage, niche subtopics and rare small details about what, English learners can become more fluent and confident when speaking or writing in English.

 With practice and experience in using “what,” learners can express themselves with clarity and persuasion. 

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