Asking questions in English

From Teflpedia

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

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

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

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

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.


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