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What Is an Interrogative Word?

Cynde Gregory
Cynde Gregory

As many a parent has explained, the only way to get the answer is to ask the question. Being in a state of not knowing is a profoundly important part of every relationship and most types of communication, and in English, as in many other languages, an interrogative word is the easiest way to get the mysteries explained.

First graders and journalists are both taught to recall the list of English question words whenever they are baffled or flummoxed. These words are called the five Ws. This stands for who, what, when, where, and why.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

To a youngster, the world is a spinning universe stuffed plumb full of every kind of mystery. Preschoolers and toddlers are particularly partial to the word why. Why demands explanation, even dissection, because young ones want to understand less what, when, or where something occurs than the reasons why it does. Why becomes the all-purpose word. Parents smile when their littlest misuses the word, asking, for example, “Why is the moon?”

Older kids moving toward adulthood pass through stages where every other interrogative word becomes important in turn. Who matters to kids who are beginning to see clear differences among people. This is especially true of teenagers who cannot help but gossip and wonder about everyone they are not.

What is an interrogative word that demands precision in the answer. It doesn’t want a category in response but rather details. Whether the question is, "What is your intention toward my daughter" or "What is the sum of 1 plus 1,978,932," a vague response just won’t work.

When and where both answer spoken or unspoken questions by locating events in a setting. When, of course, is asking about time, although the time might be precise or very general. For example, a mother who tells a child to be home by 10 p.m. doesn’t mean that midnight is close enough. A storyteller who talks about a period of time several millennium ago when pigs could fly is intentionally keeping the time vague while answering the question regarding when such things might have happened.

The interrogative word where wants a ground or foundation upon which an event can unfold. Where means location and can be answered with a place name or a pronoun. The answer to "Where did you vacation," might be Paris or it might be right here.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books