The 5-step Guide to Forming Questions in English Grammar
Questions are everywhere in English pop culture.
You may already recognize English questions when you see them, but there are many different types of questions in English grammar, each with its own rules.
In this post, we’ll show you five essential types of English questions you should know, plus grammar tips to form them correctly.
The next time you have a burning question for an English speaker, you’ll know how to ask it!
- The Inversion Method for Forming English Questions
- How to Form 5 Essential Types of Questions in English Grammar
- 1. Asking Yes/No Questions
- 2. Asking “Five W” Questions
- 3. Using Indirect Questions for Polite English
- 4. Asking Tag Questions
- 5. Asking Negative Questions for Confirmation
- Where to Practice Forming English Questions
The Inversion Method for Forming English Questions
If you’re at least a beginner English learner, you probably know how to form simple sentences (here’s a guide if you need a reminder). Fortunately, we can use those same sentence-building skills to form questions in English, too.
The trick is to form a basic sentence, then invert the word order to create a question. Here’s a very basic example:
Sentence: It is windy today.
Question: Is it windy today?
This is the formula we’ll be using throughout this post—we’ll show you how it’s done depending on the type of question you need.
How to Form 5 Essential Types of Questions in English Grammar
Now let’s move on to the structures for forming five common types of questions.
1. Asking Yes/No Questions
Yes/No questions are the most basic type of question. You can use them to ask for a simple yes or no answer. They usually begin with a verb, including auxiliary verbs (a “helping” verb that comes before the main verb) or modal verbs (such as can or would).
How to Form a Yes/No Question
Let’s start with the example sentence we used above.
It is windy today.
To change this sentence into a question, simply move the verb to the beginning. If the sentence has an auxiliary or modal verb, that’s the one you’ll need to move.
Is it windy today?
Let’s look at a few more inversions to form yes/no questions:
She is sad. → Is she sad?
The boat is sinking. → Is the boat sinking?
He can bake. → Can he bake?
If the sentence has no auxiliary verb and the main verb isn’t “to be,” things are a little different. You’ll need to put “do” or “does” at the beginning of the question. Be sure to use the correct tense and form, for example, “did” if the sentence is in the past tense.
Nina plays the violin. → Does Nina play the violin? (Notice the new form of “to play” to accommodate the new structure.)
Nina played the violin. → Did Nina play the violin?
Nina and Thomas play the violin. Do Nina and Thomas play the violin?
Once you’ve had more practice turning basic sentences into questions, you can skip the first step of starting with a sentence and go directly to forming the question.
2. Asking “Five W” Questions
The “five Ws” are the question words who, what, when, where and why. However, just to make things trickier, there are actually other question words in this category too, like “how” and phrases that start with “how.” So you may also hear these referred to as “five W and H” questions or simply “wh-” questions.
Here’s a list of common question words in this category and what each is used for:
What? Which? (to ask about things)
Where? (to ask about locations)
Who? (to ask about people)
When? (to ask about time)
Why? (to ask for the reason)
How? (to ask about the way things happen or are done)
How many? How much? How often? (to ask about the number or amount)
How to Form a Five W Question
Again, let’s start with a basic sentence. For these questions, we’ll need to replace part of the sentence with a wh- word. We’ll usually need to invert the word order as well, but not always.
Here’s our basic sentence:
Nathan is playing basketball in the park.
When you’re asking about the subject (in this case, “Nathan”) forming a sentence is pretty easy. You just replace the subject with a wh- word. Since “Nathan” is a person, our wh- word is who.
Who is playing basketball in the park?
If you’re not asking about the subject, there’ll be some word order inversion.
Let’s say we wanted to ask about the object in this sentence. We’ll replace it with our wh- word. The object is “basketball,” a thing, so our wh- word is what.
Nathan is playing what in the park?
Now we need to restructure the sentence like this:
What is Nathan playing in the park?
Notice how the subject also has to get moved in between the auxiliary verb and main verb for this type of sentence.
We can also use where to ask about the location. We replace “in the park” with where, then move where to the beginning of the sentence:
Where is Nathan playing basketball?
Five W questions can get pretty confusing and can require lots of practice to master. For an in-depth guide to five W questions with examples, see this lecture from Georgia State University.
3. Using Indirect Questions for Polite English
A direct question is used to ask for information such as, “Which train goes to Bangkok?” or “How much does this box of oranges cost?” These are the types of questions we just covered above.
However, sometimes a direct question may sound too blunt or unfriendly, especially if you’re asking someone for help or when you don’t know the person well.
But don’t worry, there’s a way you can sound more polite and friendly. Use an indirect question instead. It’s simple: just attach a phrase like “Could you please tell me…” or “Do you know…” before the direct question.
How to Form an Indirect Question
Direct question: Where is the bookstore?
Here’s how you can change this into an indirect question:
Could you please tell me where the bookstore is?
Do you know where the bookstore is?
Note the inversion when forming an indirect question. In the direct question, the verb “is” comes before the subject “bookstore.” But in the indirect question, the verb is moved to the end.
4. Asking Tag Questions
A tag question is simply a sentence with a question tag at the end. It’s used to check or confirm that you’ve understood something correctly. For example:
The train leaves at 9 a.m., doesn’t it?
You could also use it to confirm whether something you already know or think you know is true.
You will bring the cake, won’t you?
How to Form a Tag Question
To form a tag question, you simply add the question tag using the opposite form of the verb/auxiliary or modal verb used in the sentence. So if the verb in the sentence is positive (e.g. “is”), you need the negative version (e.g. “is not”). The basic formula is below.
[Sentence] + , + [opposite form of the same verb used in sentence] + [subject pronoun]?
It is raining now. → It is raining now, isn’t it?
Your father isn’t working today. → Your father isn’t working today, is he?
The students are visiting the museum. → The students are visiting the museum, aren’t they?
Notice that we used the contractions “isn’t” instead of “is not” and “aren’t” instead of “are not.” Contractions are usually used in negative tags. Notice also how the subject pronoun is used instead of the subject itself in the tag. In the examples above, “father” becomes “he” and “the students” become “they.”
When there’s no auxiliary verb, use the “do” verb form in the question tag.
Adam walks to class on Tuesdays. → Adam walks to class on Tuesdays, doesn’t he?
5. Asking Negative Questions for Confirmation
A negative question is a question that contains the word not or a negative verb contraction like didn’t (did not), weren’t (were not), etc.
Similar to question tags, you can use a negative question to confirm something you believe to be true. In the example below, you’re pretty sure everyone has heard the news but you just want to confirm. So you ask:
Didn’t you hear the news? Sally won the marathon.
A negative question can also show your surprise that something you expect to happen hasn’t happened yet. In the example below, you expected him to call back soon and you’re surprised he hasn’t. So you ask:
Hasn’t he called back yet? It’s been two hours.
How to Form a Negative Question
Verb contractions are usually used in negative questions. The basic formula is below.
[Negative verb contraction] + [subject] + [main verb] + [other information]?
Wouldn’t you like another cup of coffee?
In more formal settings, you might use “not” instead of a contraction.
[Auxiliary verb] + [subject] + not + [main verb] + [other information]?
Has she not handed in her assignment?
Where to Practice Forming English Questions
To get used to these rules, you should practice with exercise worksheets and other quiz-like resources. Test yourself often and see if there’s any part of making English questions that are difficult for you.
Oxford University Press has an online exercise worksheet gives you the words for a question, and you need to put them in the right order. When you feel ready for a challenge, try the interesting exercises at englisch-hilfen. These exercises will have you create the types of questions we’ll cover below in several different tenses.
You can also practice by listening to real English conversations that contain questions. Hearing how real English speakers form and use questions is a great way to understand how they work.
If there’s no native speaker around to chat with, you can check out English podcasts, interviews or videos. These are easy to find online on websites like YouTube.
Videos featuring native speakers are also available on the language learning program FluentU. All of its clips have interactive subtitles, so you can see any questions that were spoken and understand every word within them. There are also quizzes that let you review vocabulary as they’re used in sentences, including question phrases.
So now that you know how to form questions, be sure to go back to the top of this post and click on the exercise links to practice what you’ve learned. Remember, the more you practice, the easier and more familiar they’ll become. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you continue to practice and learn from them. Good luck!