Interrogative Pronouns | Definition, Examples & List

Interrogative pronouns are pronouns that are used to ask questions. The main English interrogative pronouns are what, which, who, whom, and whose.

An interrogative pronoun normally appears at the start of a question, but it may instead appear in the middle or at the end, depending on the phrasing. A question can also include more than one interrogative pronoun.

Like other pronouns, interrogative pronouns are said to have an antecedent. This is the noun or noun phrase that they stand for. The antecedent of an interrogative pronoun is the answer to the question.

Interrogative Pronouns

Interrogative pronouns in indirect questions

Interrogative pronouns are used in both direct and indirect questions:

  • A direct question is a sentence ending in a question mark, like the examples above.
  • An indirect question is a sentence that doesn’t end in a question mark but still implicitly asks a question, reports a question asked by someone else, or states whether the answer to a question is known.
Examples: Interrogative pronouns in indirect questions
I wonder whose those sneakers are.

He asked me what I thought of his tie, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I thought it was a bit much.

Shauna knows who the winner is, but she won’t tell me.

Even when an indirect question is implicitly a request for information, it should still end in a period, not a question mark, according to most style guides.

  • I was wondering what you think?
  • I was wondering what you think.
  • What do you think?
Note
An indirect question may also be embedded within a direct question, in which case it does end in a question mark.

For example, in the direct question “Do you know what this is?” the secondary question “What is this?” may be what the person asking really wants answered, but it is posed only indirectly.

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Who vs. whom

Who and whom play different roles in a sentence, and it’s important to use them correctly in academic writing (even though in everyday communication, people rarely use “whom” at all).

  • Who functions as a subject pronoun (i.e., the person/people performing an action)
  • Whom functions as an object pronoun (i.e., the person/people being acted upon)
Examples: “Who” and “whom” as interrogative pronouns
Who is making that noise?

Whom have you told about this?

I’m not sure from whom he got that idea.

Tip
If you struggle to remember the difference, try imagining how the question could be answered using a personal pronoun. If you use “he,” “she,” or “they,” then who is the right choice. If you use “him,” “her,” or “them,” then whom is correct.

For example, “Whom have you told?” becomes “I have told her.”

What vs. which

What and which are sometimes used interchangeably, but they differ slightly in meaning.

  • What is used in questions where there is a wide range of possible answers.
  • Which is used when there are only a few possible answers to choose from, either explicitly listed or implied by the nature of the question.
Examples: “What” and “which” as interrogative pronouns
What is your favorite food?

Which is better, The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings?

It’s difficult to say what will happen next.

Which of the following statements is true?

Compound interrogative pronouns

You can add “-ever” to any of the interrogative pronouns mentioned above to create the compound interrogative pronouns whatever, whichever, whoever, whomever, and (quite rarely) whosever.

These pronouns are used to add emphasis, suggesting that the question is particularly perplexing to the person asking it. They are often used in a facetious way to suggest that you know very well what the answer to your question is. It’s generally not appropriate to use them in academic writing.

Examples: Compound interrogative pronouns
Whomever could this scarf belong to?

Whatever do you mean?

Whoever is knocking at the door at this time of night?

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Other interrogative words (adverbs and determiners)

Interrogative pronouns are not the only words used to ask questions. Other words used for the same purpose are classified as different parts of speech. The other interrogative words are:

  • The interrogative adverbs (when, where, why, and how)
  • The interrogative determiners (what, which, and whose)

In the cases of what, which, and whose, whether they’re classed as pronouns or determiners depends on their role in the question. When they replace nouns, as in the earlier examples, they are pronouns; when they modify nouns, they are determiners.

Examples: Interrogative adverbs and determiners
When did the Second World War end?

Which dress do you prefer?

How is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosed?

It’s important to consider whose perspectives are given most prominence.

Note
The conjunction whether can also be classed as an interrogative word, but it can’t introduce a direct question on its own. Instead, it’s used in indirect yes-or-no questions (e.g., “I asked him whether he’d seen her,” “Do you know whether they’ve arrived?”).

Interrogative vs. relative pronouns

All the interrogative pronouns can also function as relative pronouns. Relative pronouns are words used to introduce a relative clause: a clause providing extra information about the preceding noun or noun phrase.

Examples: Relative pronouns
I know I have friends who will be there for me when I need them.

The lost hat, which was green, wasn’t easy to locate underwater.

The staff member whom I spoke to pointed me in this direction.

Frequently asked questions

What is an interrogative pronoun?

An interrogative pronoun is a pronoun that is used to introduce a question. The main English interrogative pronouns are what, which, who, whom, and whose.

They can be used in a direct question, which ends in a question mark (e.g., “What is your favorite color?”) and indirect questions, which don’t have a question mark (e.g., “I asked what her favorite color was”).

What does “interrogative” mean?

“Interrogative” is an adjective that means “used in a question” or “having the form of a question.”

Interrogative words (sometimes simply called “interrogatives”) are words used to introduce questions: interrogative pronouns such as “who,” interrogative adverbs such as “why,” and interrogative determiners such as “which.”

“Interrogative sentence” is another way of saying “question”: a sentence ending in a question mark that functions as a request for information.

What is an interrogative sentence?

An interrogative sentence is a question. An interrogative sentence always ends in a question mark.

Interrogative sentences are marked by the use of interrogative words (interrogative pronouns, interrogative adverbs, and interrogative determiners; e.g., “who,” “why”) or by a form of the auxiliary verb “do” (e.g., “Do you like me?”) or the main verb “be” (e.g., “Are you warm?”).

Note that an indirect question (e.g., “I wonder what he thinks”) does not count as an interrogative sentence and should not end in a question mark.

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Caulfield, J. (2023, April 24). Interrogative Pronouns | Definition, Examples & List. Scribbr. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/nouns-and-pronouns/interrogative-pronouns/

Sources

Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. Oxford University Press.

Butterfield, J. (Ed.). (2015). Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Garner, B. A. (2016). Garner’s modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

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Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in comparative literature. He writes for Scribbr about his specialist topics: grammar, linguistics, citations, and plagiarism. In his spare time, he reads a lot of books.