There are two main types of English questions: direct questions and indirect questions. When we ask questions in English, we either start the question immediately (a direct question) or use an introduction to make the question more polite (an indirect question).
Grammar rules for English questions
1. In most cases, you need an auxiliary to make a question in English.
We can use the verb “to be”, a modal verb (can / will, etc), or “has” or “have” (from the present perfect tense) as the auxiliary. When there isn’t an auxiliary in the sentence (for example, in the present simple or past simple tenses) we use the auxiliary “do”, “does” (for present simple) or “did” (for past simple).
2. The main verb following the auxiliary + subject is in the infinitive form.
For example, in the question “Where does he live?”, the main verb “live” is in the infinitive. (not “to live” or “lives”.)
3. The word order for most English questions (ie direct questions) is:
Question word (for “wh” questions) | Auxiliary | Subject | Verb (infinitive without “to”)
Direct questions – yes / no questions in English
Look at these sentences:
1. He likes swimming.
2. He can swim long distances.
3. He is a good swimmer.
To make sentence 1 into a question, you need to add does as the auxiliary. Does goes before he.
Does is only used if the subject is he, she or it. In all other cases, use do.
The verb like goes after the subject, but it doesn’t have an ‘s’ on the end as it’s in the infinitive form.
So “Does he like swimming?” Not “Does he likes swimming?” or “Do he like swimming?”
If the sentence is in the past tense (“He liked swimming”), we use the past form of ‘do’ or ‘does’, which is did. The verb ‘like’ is still in the infinitive without ‘to’.
For example, “Did he like swimming?” Not “Did he liked swimming?”
To make sentence 2 into a question, you don’t need to use ‘does’ because you already have an auxiliary verb – can. So you put the can before he.
“Can he swim long distances?” Not “Can swim he long distances?” or “Does he can swim long distances?”
To make sentence 3 into a question, use is as the auxiliary.
“Is he a good swimmer?” Not “Does he is a good swimmer?” or “Does he be a good swimmer?”
Direct questions – “wh” questions
Here are some examples of “wh” English questions:
What is your name?
Why do you want this job?
How much do you earn?
How soon can you start?
When did you see the advertisement?
Where do you live?
Which newspaper did you see the advertisement in?
Who gave you my name?
In this type of English question, you are asking for more information – not just a “yes”/”no” answer.
For example, in the question “Did you see the advertisement”, the answer is either “yes” or “no”. But in the question “When did you see the advertisement” the answer could be “last week” or “a month ago”.
After the “wh word” (what, why, how, when, etc) comes the auxiliary (do, does, did or can), then the subject (you) , then the rest of the question.
English questions without auxiliaries
If ‘who’, ‘which’ or ‘what’ are the subject of the question, you don’t need an auxiliary.
For example, “What happened?” Not “What did happen?” The thing that happened is what – the subject of the question.
“Who saw you?” Someone (the subject of the verb) saw you – who was that person?
Compare with “Who did you see?” You (the subject) saw someone (“who” is the object) – who was it?
“Which company made a profit?” A company made a profit – which company was it?
Compare with “Which company did you work for?” You worked for a company (the object of the verb) – which one was it?
Indirect questions in English
In this type of English question, we use an indirect phrase before the question. We do this to be more polite (for example in a formal situation) or to ask a question that is quite sensitive. Here are some examples of these indirect phrases:
Can you tell me…
Could you tell me…
I’d be interested to hear…
I’d like to know…
Would you mind telling me…
Do you know…
Have you any idea…
I wonder… / I was wondering…
These questions are followed by a “wh word” or if. Then you add the subject, then the rest of the question. The word order is the same as an affirmative sentence. You don’t need an ‘auxiliary’, such as ‘do’, ‘does’ or ‘did’.
“Can you tell me where the bus station is, please?” (Indirect question: where + noun + verb)
“Where is the bus station, please?” (Direct question: where + verb + subject)
“I’d like to know how long the journey takes.” (Indirect question: how long + noun + verb)
“How long does the journey take?” (Direct question: how long + auxiliary does + subject + verb)
“Can you tell me what you like most about your present job?” Not “Can you tell me what do you like?”
If the direct question is a “yes/no” question (such as “Have you applied for a similar job before?”) the indirect question includes “if” or “whether“.
“Would you mind telling me if you have applied for a similar position before?”
“I’d like to know whether you can work on Saturdays.” (Direct question: “Can you work on Saturdays?”)
You can also follow an indirect question phrase with about:
“I’d be interested to hear about your experiences.”
“Can you tell us about your background?”
For other types of English questions, see our page on Question Tags.
Asking questions quiz
Level: Elementary and above
- Remember: with the verb ''have got'', the question form is ''have you got'' or ''has she got'' - not ''have you'' or ''has she''.
- We can use the verb ''do'' as an auxiliary (in the present simple tense) and as a main verb. So when we want to ask a question with ''do'' as the main verb, we still need the auxiliary ''do''. This means the question has two ''do'' in it: ''Do you do ... (a sport / anything interesting, etc) in your free time?''
- Remember that ''cost'' is also a verb, and that you need ''do'' or ''does'' to make a question.
- When there is already an auxiliary in the verb (such as in the present perfect tense, or the present continuous tense) you don't need another auxiliary ''do'', ''does'' or ''did''. So in this question - which is in the present perfect - we use ''have'' as the auxiliary to make the question.
- With the verb ''to be'', you don't need an auxiliary (do/does) to make a question. But you need an inversion. ''It is...'' is a statement, but ''Is it...'' is the question form.
- You also need the inversion if you make a question in the past simple tense. (''Where were you?'' and not ''Where you were?'')
- After an auxiliary verb (do / does / did) the main verb is in the infinitive form. So if you ask a question in the past simple tense, the word order is auxiliary ''did'' + subject + infinitive without ''to''. (''Did you go out?'' and not ''Did you went out?'')
- ''Where you from'' is ungrammatical because there is no verb. You can say either ''Where are you from?'' or ''Where do you come from?'' (The reply is either ''I am from...'' or ''I come from ...'')
- Remember the word order of ''wh'' questions: question word + auxiliary + subject + infinitive without ''to''.
- With questions starting with ''who'' or ''what'', you can omit ''did'' if ''who'' or ''what'' is also the subject of the question. In ''What happened at the party?'' the thing that happened is ''what'', which is the subject of the question. (Compare to ''What did Tony do at the party?'' where ''Tony'' - the subject - did a thing which we refer to as ''what'' - the object.)
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