Language Matters: The English Verb System (4) - Question Formation


How do you ask a question in English? How would you explain the rules of form and use of the following questions? If you're not sure, check with a grammar such as the Cambridge Online Grammar (follow the links on the first page for the various types of question).

a) Can I see you for a moment?
b) Where did you go?
c) Who told you that?
d) You went to Rome?
e) You went to Rome, didn't you?
f) We're not late, are we?
g) Can you tell me what time the plane leaves?

When you've considered these examples, scroll down to see the Commentary which discusses them.  Then go on to test your understanding with the quiz that follows.


a)   Can I see you for a moment?

This is a closed or “Yes/No” question., formed by inverting the subject and the first  auxiliary verb (the operator). So also :

It has been raining        Has it been raining?

b)   Where did you go?

This is an object-oriented Wh-question – ie one in which the Wh-word refers to the object (O) or     complement (C) of the answer :

Where did you go?    We (S)   went (V)  to Rome (C)

What did you buy? I bought some tomatoes. (O)

This type of question is again formed by inversion of the auxiliary and the Subject after the Wh- question.

a)   Can I see you for a moment?   b)   Where did you go?

In both Yes/No and Wh-questions, if the verb form is one which contains an auxiliary in the affirmative form, it is that auxiliary which is used to form the question whilst other elements of the verb phrase remain the same. So :

I can see you                 Can I see you ...?

 It has been raining         Has it been raining?

If, on the other hand, the verb form does not contain an auxiliary in the affirmative (simple present/past), the dummy” auxiliary DO is used in the appropriate tense and person, and the main verb becomes an infinitive :

We went to Rome.             Where did you go?

c)   Who told you that?

This is an example of a “subject-oriented” Wh-question  ie the Wh-question refers to the subject (S) of the answer and is therefore the subject of the question :

Who told you that? David (S) told me that.

In this type of question there is no change in either the word order or the form of

the verb phrase.

Teaching tip : Subject oriented questions are often taught by setting a context such

as John phoned Mary and then introducing questions like Who did John phone? Who phoned Mary? I find that this approach leads to confusion – it’s just mental gymnastics. See the ELT Notebook article materials and the teaching materials which follow this handout for an alternative approach.


d)   You went to Rome?

This is an echo question, used when a previous utterance has ...

1.   ...explicitly stated the proposition contained in the question, so that the speaker is eg expressing surprise or interest :

     A : I went to Rome yesterday       B : You went to Rome? What for?

2.  ...allowed the speaker to deduce the proposition of the question, and s/he is asking for its confirmation :

      A : This time yesterday, I was walking round the Colosseum. 

      B : You went to Rome?

The tonic syllable in the echo question (here Rome) will have rising intonation.

e)   You went to Rome, didn't you?     f)   We're not late, are we?

These are tag questions, formed by adding an operator tag to a statement. The operator is the same as the operator of the preceding statement. Tags may be affirmative or negative, and this may be the same as the form of the statement or the opposite. The intonation on the tag may be rising or falling. There are six possible combinations :

A.   Opposite forms (ie aff/neg or neg/aff) and rising tone

1.    You went to Rome, didn't you?  (rising tone on did)

2.    We aren’t late, are we?  (rising tone on are)

Here the tags can be seen as an invitation for the listener to comment on the truth of the proposition – the sentences could be glossed something like I’m assuming that you went to Rome   /  We aren’t late. Am I right?


B.   Opposite forms and falling tone.

4.  You went to Rome, didn't you?  (falling tone on did)

5.   We aren’t late, are we ?   (falling tone on are)

Here, the tag invites the listener to confirm the statement.

C.   Same forms (aff/aff and neg/neg) and rising tone

6.          You went to Rome, did you (rising tone on did)       

7.          We aren’t late, aren’t we ?  (rising tone on are)

This type of sentence is often preceded by Oh ... or So... suggesting that the speaker is drawing a conclusion. It is often used sarcastically :

Oh, so we aren’t late, aren’t we? So how come our plane isn’t on the departures board any more?

The types of tag in (C) are much rarer than those in (A) and (B).

Teaching tip : Question tags are a good example of a structure that students ...

  • may not need at all if they are only using English as a lingua franca to speak to other non-native speakers
  • will need receptively if they are in contact with native speakers but don't necessarily need productively.

g)   Can you tell me what time the plane leaves?


An indirect question. The “real” question is Can you tell me ... which is followed by a dependent wh-clause which retains the affirmative S-V order.

Teaching tip : I find students grasp this more easily if you introduce it not through questions at all, but through sentences like I don’t know what time the plane leaves, where there is clearly no interrogative sense and therefore no reason for the inversion.


Try this quiz:  Asking Questions

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