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The Interrogative English Pronouns for ESL Students

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/5/2013

Interrogative pronouns are pronouns that gather more information about an unknown noun. This article lists the five interrogative English pronouns as well as the six grammatical functions of interrogative pronouns in English grammar. Also included is a printable study sheet of the five pronouns.

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    Interrogative Pronouns

    Similar to interrogative determiners, interrogative pronouns are most often used in questions to gather more information about an unknown noun or nominal. The five interrogative pronouns in English are:

    1. who
    2. whom
    3. what
    4. which
    5. whose

    The antecedents of who, whom, and whose are typically a human or other animate, usually personified, being. The antecedent of what is generally a inanimate or nonhuman thing. The antecedent of which can be either human or nonhuman depending on context. The following sections explain the six grammatical functions—subject, subject complement, direct object, object complement, indirect object, prepositional complement—of interrogative pronouns and provide examples to illustrate use.

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    Interrogative Pronouns as Subjects

    Interrogative pronouns first function as the subjects of clauses. Subjects are words, phrases, and clauses that perform the action of or act upon the verb functioning as the predicate. The four interrogative pronouns in English that function as subjects are who1, what, which, and whose. The following italicized pronouns are examples of interrogative pronouns functioning as subjects:

    • Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?
    • What does this recipe call for? (What ingredients does this recipe call for?)
    • Which do you need for class? (Which book do you need for class?)
    • Whose is this? (Whose cupcake is this?)
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    Interrogative Pronouns as Subject Complements

    Interrogative pronouns secondly function as the subject complements of clauses. Subject complements are words, phrases, and clauses that follow a copular verb and refer back to describe the subject. The five interrogative pronouns in English that function as subject complements are who, whom2, what, which, and whose. The following italicized pronouns are examples of interrogative pronouns functioning as subject complements:

    • Who was the author of the editorial?
    • Who is the special guest?
    • Your mystery ingredient is what?!
    • Her shoes are which? (Her shoes are which pair?)
    • The dingy rabbit slippers are whose?
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    Interrogative Pronouns as Direct Objects

    Interrogative pronouns thirdly function as the direct objects of clauses. Direct objects are words, phrases, and clauses that follow and receive the action of a transitive verb. The five interrogative pronouns in English that function as direct objects are who3, whom, what, which, and whose. The following italicized pronouns are examples of interrogative pronouns functioning as direct objects:

    • What did you eat for dinner?
    • Who3 have you invited?
    • You saw whom at the concert?
    • He gave which one a bath? (He game the Lab puppy a bath.)
    • The neighbor borrowed whose lawn chair? (The neighbor borrowed Mike's lawn chair.)
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    Interrogative Pronouns as Object Complements

    Interrogative pronouns fourthly function as the object complements of clauses. Object complements are words, phrases, and clauses that directly follow and describe the direct object. The two interrogative pronouns in English that function as object complements are what and whose. The following italicized pronouns are examples of interrogative pronouns functioning as object complements:

    • The boss appointed her what?
    • The committee named the prize whose?
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    Interrogative Pronouns as Indirect Objects

    Interrogative pronouns fifthly function as the indirect objects of clauses. Indirect objects are words, phrases, and clauses that indicate to or for whom or what the action of a ditransitive verb is performed. The five interrogative pronouns in English that function as indirect objects are who3, whom, what, which, and whose. The following italicized pronouns are examples of interrogative pronouns functioning as indirect objects:

    • Grandma has loaned who3 some money? (Grandma has loaned Uncle Bob some money.)
    • You mailed whom the package? (You mailed the package to Tim.)
    • The groomer is giving what a bath? (The groomer gave the poodle a bath.)
    • He wants to give which a new paint job? (He wants to give the Ford a new paint job.)
    • She bought whose used car? (She bought Milo's used car.)
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    Interrogative Pronouns as Prepositional Complements

    Interrogative pronouns sixthly function as the prepositional complements of prepositional phrases. Prepositional complements are words, phrases, and clauses that follow a preposition and complete the meaning of a prepositional phrase. The five interrogative pronouns in English that function as prepositional complements are who3, whom, what, which, and whose. The following italicized pronouns are examples of interrogative pronouns functioning as prepositional complements:

    • Who3 are you rooting for?
    • The little girl gave her toy to whom?
    • The class is not allowed to talk about what?
    • Which are you looking at? (I'm looking at the painting of the sailboat.)
    • Whose parents did you meet with today? (Today I met with Martha's parents.)
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    1. Note that some speakers will sometimes hypercorrect and use the object pronouns whom in the subject position. Hypercorrection is when a speaker or writer overgeneralizes a rule to the point of making a new error.

    2. Note that traditional grammars proscribe the use of the object pronouns whom in the subject complement position similar to the proscription of the personal object pronouns as subject complements.

    3. Note that traditional grammars proscribe the use of the subject pronouns who in object positions although all but the most formal registers require whom as direct objects, indirect objects, and prepositional complements.

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    The accompanying printable reference sheet the interrogative pronouns in English is available for download at English Interrogative Pronouns Reference Sheet.