As a teacher of both English and IELTS, I frequently encounter learners who are puzzled by the unique rules and formats of questions in English. It’s true; questioning in English can be complex. But guess what? Once you understand the basic structures, forming questions will no longer be a task but a skill you can use effortlessly. This article aims to break down the subject of question word order into easily digestible parts.
Table of Contents
- The Foundation: Yes/No Questions
- The Use of Tag Questions
- Tactfulness Through Indirect Questions
- Advanced: Embedded Questions
- Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them
The Foundation: Yes/No Questions
Yes/no questions are the simplest form of questions and a good starting point for our discussion. As the name implies, these are questions that elicit a “yes” or “no” answer.
Rule 1: Subject-Auxiliary Inversion
For these questions, the auxiliary verb and the subject often switch places. This is called inversion.
Statement: You are coming.
Question: Are you coming?
Notice that the subject (“you”) and the verb (“are”) have switched places.
- Statement: She is eating.
- Question: Is she eating?
- Statement: They have finished.
- Question: Have they finished?
- Statement: We will go.
- Question: Will we go?
- Statement: You can swim.
- Question: Can you swim?
- Statement: He should call.
- Question: Should he call?
- Statement: I am studying.
- Question: Am I studying?
- Statement: She has been working.
- Question: Has she been working?
- Statement: You were talking.
- Question: Were you talking?
- Statement: It might rain.
- Question: Might it rain?
- Statement: They could see.
- Question: Could they see?
In each of these examples, you’ll notice that the auxiliary verb and the subject switch places to form a Yes/No question. This rule is crucial for mastering the art of questioning in English.
Named after the words that usually start the question (Who, What, Where, When, Why, How), WH-questions require more than a “yes” or “no” answer.
Rule 2: WH-word + Auxiliary + Subject + Main Verb
- Where do you live?
Here, there is a question word (“where”) followed by an auxiliary (“do”) and then the subject (“you”) and main verb (“live”).
- Question: What is she eating?
- Question: Where have they gone?
- Question: When will you arrive?
- Question: Why are we running?
- Question: Who did you meet?
- Question: How can I help?
- Question: Which should we choose?
- Question: Whom are you talking to?
- Question: How many books have you read?
- Question: When are they leaving?
Each of these questions follows the rule of “WH-word + Auxiliary + Subject + Main Verb” to form a WH-question. These types of questions are essential for gathering specific information and are very common in everyday English conversation.
The Use of Tag Questions
Tag questions are less about seeking new information and more about confirming information you think you know.
Rule 3: Positive to Negative and Negative to Positive
A positive statement gets a negative tag and vice versa.
- You are coming, aren’t you?
- You aren’t coming, are you?
Note that the first question is a positive idea, so it uses a negative tag. The second is a negative idea followed by a positive tag.
- Positive Statement: She is studying.
- Question: She is studying, isn’t she?
- Negative Statement: She isn’t studying.
- Question: She isn’t studying, is she?
- Positive Statement: They have been to Paris.
- Question: They have been to Paris, haven’t they?
- Negative Statement: They haven’t been to Paris.
- Question: They haven’t been to Paris, have they?
- Positive Statement: You will go.
- Question: You will go, won’t you?
- Negative Statement: You won’t go.
- Question: You won’t go, will you?
- Positive Statement: I can swim.
- Question: I can swim, can’t I?
- Negative Statement: I can’t swim.
- Question: I can’t swim, can I?
- Positive Statement: He does know.
- Question: He does know, doesn’t he?
- Negative Statement: He doesn’t know.
- Question: He doesn’t know, does he?
These question tags are used for a variety of purposes, such as confirming information, checking something you believe to be true, or encouraging agreement. The important rule to remember is to balance a positive statement with a negative tag, and vice versa.
Tactfulness Through Indirect Questions
Indirect questions are used when you want to be more formal or polite.
Rule 4: Indirect Question Structure
- Could you tell me where the library is?
- Do you know if she’s okay?
- Direct: Where are you going?
- Indirect: Could you tell me where you are going?
- Direct: Is the meeting at 3 PM?
- Indirect: Do you know if the meeting is at 3 PM?
- Direct: Who won the match?
- Indirect: Could you inform me who won the match?
- Direct: Are they coming to the party?
- Indirect: I wonder if they are coming to the party?
- Direct: How do I get to the airport?
- Indirect: Can you explain how I get to the airport?
- Direct: What time does the store close?
- Indirect: Do you happen to know what time the store closes?
- Direct: Why was she late?
- Indirect: Could you clarify why she was late?
- Direct: Is it going to rain?
- Indirect: Do you think it’s going to rain?
- Direct: Did you like the movie?
- Indirect: I was wondering whether you liked the movie.
- Direct: Will you be able to complete the task?
- Indirect: Can you confirm if you will be able to complete the task?
Indirect questions are especially useful when you’re trying to be respectful or when the question itself is a delicate one. Remember to start the indirect question with a phrase like “Could you tell me,” “Do you know,” or “I wonder” before adding the actual question part.
Advanced: Embedded Questions
Once you get comfortable with basic question word order, you’ll notice that English allows for more complex structures like embedded questions.
Rule 5: No Inversion in Embedded Questions
- I don’t know where she is.
- Can you tell me what the time is?
Instead of saying “Where is she?” or “What is the time?” we use regular statement word order here. That’s because these questions have been embedded in a non-question statement.
- Direct: Is he coming?
- Embedded: I wonder if he is coming.
- Direct: Where are you?
- Embedded: She asked where you are.
- Direct: What time does the train leave?
- Embedded: Do you know what time the train leaves?
- Direct: Why is she late?
- Embedded: I don’t know why she is late.
- Direct: Are they going to the concert?
- Embedded: I’m not sure if they are going to the concert.
- Direct: Who won the race?
- Embedded: He didn’t say who won the race.
- Direct: How did she find out?
- Embedded: I wonder how she found out.
- Direct: When will he arrive?
- Embedded: She hasn’t heard when he will arrive.
- Direct: Which book are you reading?
- Embedded: He asked which book you are reading.
- Direct: What are you doing?
- Embedded: I can’t imagine what you are doing.
Remember, the key point in embedded questions is that the word order remains the same as in statement sentences, even though the sentence as a whole may function as a question. This is especially true when the question forms part of a larger sentence or is presented in a less direct or formal manner.
Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them
Mistake 1: Incorrect Inversion in WH-Questions
Incorrect: Why you are sad?
Correct: Why are you sad?
Here, the words have been put into the wrong order.
- Incorrect: How you know him?
Correct: How do you know him?
- Incorrect: When she is arriving?
Correct: When is she arriving?
- Incorrect: What you want for dinner?
Correct: What do you want for dinner?
- Incorrect: Where they are going?
Correct: Where are they going?
In each of these incorrect examples, the subject and the auxiliary verb are in the wrong order. Remember, the correct structure for most WH-questions is WH-word + Auxiliary + Subject + Main Verb. By switching the subject and the auxiliary verb, you ensure that your questions are not only grammatically correct but also more easily understood.
Mistake 2: Matching Positive to Positive or Negative to Negative in Tag Questions
Incorrect: She is coming, is she?
Correct: She is coming, isn’t she?
- Incorrect: You are studying, are you?
Correct: You are studying, aren’t you?
- Incorrect: He can swim, can he?
Correct: He can swim, can’t he?
- Incorrect: They will arrive soon, will they?
Correct: They will arrive soon, won’t they?
- Incorrect: She has finished, has she?
Correct: She has finished, hasn’t she?
In each of these incorrect examples, the mistake is having a positive expression matched with a positive tag or a negative expression matched with a negative tag. In correct tag questions, you should match positive to negative and negative to positive.
In summary, question word order in English can seem daunting, but as you delve deeper into the structure and rules, you’ll find it is built on logic and patterns. Remember, practice makes perfect. Keep applying these rules in your day-to-day conversations and writing exercises, and soon forming questions in English will become second nature.
Note that these lessons are all important for helping you to understand IELTS speaking questions. By knowing the right question word order, you will have a better chance of understanding what you were asked and thus giving better answers.
You can read about other common grammar problems here.