Asking questions in English

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Asking questions in English may prove difficult for some students. If teachers spend too much time asking questions in class, especially of the type which require yes/no answers, students may find they have little opportunity to practise the art themselves, especially in large classes. Pairwork aims to resolve this unfortunate state of affairs. This is a brief guide.

While some teachers may try to prevent students giving simple yes/no answers, care should be taken to avoid clumsy use of language. In other words, if the natural question in a certain context is "Did you like it?", that's the question to ask, and not "What is your opinion of it?"

Likewise, not all questions beginning with "Did/Are you...?" etc. lead to a simple yes/no answer. One way of getting students to respond more fully is by asking "either/or" questions, for instance, "Did you..., or were you...?"

With auxiliary verbs[edit]

In questions the auxiliary verb comes before the subject.

  • Have you spoken to them about the new project?
  • Why are you laughing?
  • What are all those people looking at?
  • Can you swim?

No auxiliary verb in statement[edit]

If there is no other auxiliary in the question then “do” is used as the "default" auxiliary:

  • Do you like speaking about new projects?
  • Do you laugh a lot?
  • What do those people think they are looking at?
  • Do you drink?
  • Did your sister pass her exams?

After “do” the verb form is the “bare infinitive” – without “to”.


  • What do you and all the rest of these people want?
  • Where was Picasso born?

Only the auxiliary goes before the subject. This is the case even if the subject is very long.

  • Is your sister coming tomorrow?
  • Where was Martin Luther born?
  • Where are you and your sister staying?
  • Where is the new wind farm in Portugal being built?
  • Do you and the rest of the family and friends dance?

Subject is question word[edit]

When the question word is the subject of the sentence, the question word comes before the verb and “do” is not used.

  • Who tried to kill Hitler?
  • Which president of the United States freed the slaves?
  • What started the Second World War?

Other examples[edit]

In The cat chased the mouse.

We can question the subject. What chased the mouse? Subject question – no auxiliary.

We can question the verb. What did the cat do? No other auxiliary, so “do” used as default.

We can question the object. What was chased by the cat? A question in the passive.


External links[edit]