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Question Formation in English

June 15, 2017

Questions are an essential part of communicating in English. From classroom instruction to small talk, English language learners need to grasp the basics of question formation early on in their studies. A subscriber recently asked us for a resource on question formation, and we decided to share it on our blog as well. So how exactly do we form questions in English?

Question Formation Chart

Question formation chart

Question Formation – Grammar & Usage Resources

Chart Key

  • S = Subject
  • Aux = Auxiliary
  • V = Verb
  • O = Object


Note #1

When the Be verb is the main verb in a question, it has a different pattern in the simple present and past tenses.

Question Pattern Example
Yes/No Be + S Is this your dog?
Wh- Wh‑ + Be + S + O When were you in Rome?

Note #2

The auxiliaries do, be, and have take an ‑s in the third person singular form (with he, she, it, singular count nouns, and non‑count nouns).

  • Does she like ice cream?
  • How is your son feeling today?
  • Has everyone left yet?

Note #3

Wh- words usually act as the object of a sentence.

Wh- + Aux + S + V

  • She (S) likes (V) pizza (O).
  • What (O) does (Aux) she  (S) like (V)?

However, some Wh- words, especially who and what, can also act as subjects in English.

Wh- + V (+ O)

  • Nobody (S) cares (V).
  • Who (S) cares (V)?
  • Something (S) happened (V).
  • What (S) happened (V)?

Note #4

Auxiliary phrases like be going to, be able tohave to, etc. follow the usual patterns.

  • Are you going to call me later?
  • Does he have to leave?

Fun Activity

For an easy warm-up or filler activity, try doing a student-designed Q&A.

  • First, cut up enough blank cards to have five (or ten) per student.
  • Next, get students to write conversation questions of their choosing on their cards. (You can give students free reign or choose to practice only Yes/No questions, Wh‑ questions, questions in a certain tense, etc.)
  • If needed, put some examples on the board (e.g., What’s your favorite dish? When did you start studying English? Do you prefer summer or winter?).
  • When they've finished writing their questions, collect the cards and shuffle them together.
  • Now put students into small groups and divide the cards up evenly.
  • Finally, have students take turns choosing a question and asking it to one or more of their group members. (You can choose a time limit, such as 20 minutes, or let them talk until their cards run out.)

Related Resources

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Comments (3)

Marc C.(Teacher)

I introduce questions in the same way. I have two suggestions based on what happens in the classroom after discussing and practicing yes-no and WH-questions.
In my beginning classes (and sometimes in intermediate, too), the source of some students' confusion is that the questions are mixed--there are both questions formed with 'be' and those that are not. I like to start by mixing them, as you do, and use a 'teachable' moment to explain that recognizing the kind of question that someone needs is very important. Then I separate the questions and first teach 'be' questions (Was she in Spain last year?) and then do-does-did questions (Did she get a new apartment?) and then gradually add other 'non-be' question words: can, could, will, etc. My suggestion then would be for ESL library to have another question-making activity that introduces be questions and contrasts them with the other types of questions.
Another suggestion is to add open response questions. These can have several (or many) answers. The questions in the activity above all have specific answers: 'Have they left yet?'
Open response questions leave room for inserting opinion--'Why did you like Louisville better than Chicago? or 'What are the main differences between Spanish and French?' People can have opinions on these. Adding a third person to the conversation creates more possibilities: 'Why do your parents want you to change your major?' Here the answer describes the parents' views and leads into the student's views of the parents' opinion.
Question-making can help in classroom management, too. Any short period of 5 to 10 minutes at the start or end of a class can be filled with asking students random questions of all types.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Mark, thanks for sharing what you do in class regarding questions! Great ideas. I like your suggestion to ask questions that need to be answered with a personal opinion. I also like your idea of using questions as a way to begin or end a class. I often did that with my students too (as described in the fun activity above). Our Grammar Practice Worksheets lesson (under Related Resources in the post) includes plenty of practice with all types of questions.

Basira B.(Student)


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