Are You Confused by English Question Formation?

Question formation in English is different from the formation of other sentences in two main ways.First, the beginning word order is reversed.

How to form questions in English: a simple explanation with lots of examples.(Photo of a man with binoculars + questions:

Instead of beginning with the subject, questions begin with a helping verb (or with a question word like ‘who’ or ‘what’ and then the helping verb), then the subject, then the main verb and the rest of the sentence.

Second, (unlike affirmative sentences), questions almost always need a helping verb along with the main verb.

The most common helping verb is 'do.' 'Do' (or 'does' or 'did') doesn't change the meaning of a question but alerts the listener that a question is coming.

Other helping verbs include can, could, should, would, will, have (with perfect tenses: Have you seen a doctor about your problem?), and be (is, are, etc.).

(The verb ‘be’ can be used without a helping verb. It is a helping verb for the continuous tenses, but it can also stand alone. We don’t use the verb ‘do’ together with ‘be,’ except as a negative command: Don't be late!" See the examples below for the usual ways to use 'be.')

The helping verb at the beginning of a question is important for communication. It tells us to listen for a question. So do question words like 'who' 'how.' or 'what.'

2 Kinds of Questions

English has two kinds of questions.

When we are asking for information we begin a question with a ‘Wh-‘ question word: who, what, when, where, why, or how (as well as whom, which, how many, how much, how long, etc.) 

When we just need a yes or no answer, we omit the question word and begin directly with the helping verb.

See the charts below for examples of some questions in health care settings.

Information (Wh-) Questions

Information Questions (Who, What, Where, etc.) have five parts:

1. Question Word 2. Helping Verb  3. Subject, 4. Main Verb (usually base form), & 5 the rest of the sentence (if any)

What do you want for dinner?

*What meds has the M.D. prescribed?

Where does the E.R. keep  bandages?

When can I take a break? 

When did the pain start?

How do you feel this morning? 

How much do you weigh?

How often should take this? 

*How long have you had this cough?

*How long has he been sick? 

*What color is the pill?

*When are you going to have surgery?

Yes or No Questions

Helping Vb

Do

Does

Should

Can

*Has

*Have

Are

*Was

Subject

you

Ms. Jones

I

you

he

you

you

the doctor

Main Verb

take

have

give

feel

seen

taken


listening

The Rest

any pills?

children?

the IV now?

this?

a specialist?

this before?

ready now?

to his lungs?

Helping Vb/Subject/Main Verb/The Rest 

Do you take any pills?

Does Ms. Jones have children?

Should give the IV now?

Can you feel this?

*Has he seen a specialist?

*Have you taken this before?

Are you ready now?

*Was the doctor listening to his lungs?

*Note:

  • for perfect tenses the helping verb is ‘have’ and the main verb is in past participle form. 
  • For continuous tenses the helping verb is ‘be’ and the main verb is in the present participle form (-ing).

For more information on sentences in English, see English Sentence StructureEnglish Verbs, and Modal Verbs. Those pages apply to questions as well as statements. You might also be interested in how to form Negative Sentences in English.

Home English Grammar Lessons > Question Formation.

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