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The English Interrogative Pronoun System

Interrogative pronouns are a type of pronoun that take the place of another word, phrase, or clause. Similar to interrogative determiners, interrogative pronouns are most often used in questions to gather more information about an unknown antecedent. The ten interrogative pronouns in English grammar are:

  • who
  • whom
  • what
  • which
  • whose
  • whoever
  • whomever
  • whatever
  • whichever
  • whosever

The interrogative pronouns who, whom, whose, whoever, whomever, and whosever typically have human or other animate, usually personified, antecedents. The interrogative pronouns what and whatever generally have nonanimate, nonhuman antecedents. The interrogative pronouns what and whatever can have either human or nonhuman antecedents depending on the context.

Interrogative pronouns perform six grammatical functions in English grammar:

  1. Subject
  2. Subject complement
  3. Direct object
  4. Object complement
  5. Indirect object
  6. Prepositional complement

Subjects

The first grammatical function that interrogative pronouns perform is the subject. A subject is a word, phrase, or clause that performs the action of or acts upon the verb. The interrogative pronouns in English that function as subjects are who1, what, which, whose, whoever1, whatever, whichever, and whosever. For example, the following italicized interrogative pronouns function as subjects:

  • Who ordered the extra large cheese pizza?
  • What happened last night?
  • Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
  • Whose are those?
  • Whoever would want to do such a nasty thing?
  • Whatever did he say to make her cry like that?
  • Whosever is this ridiculous hat?
  • Whichever is fine.

Subject Complements

The second grammatical function that interrogative pronouns perform is the subject complement. A subject complement is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a copular, or linking, verb and describes the subject of a clause. The interrogative pronouns in English that function as subject complements are who, whom2, what, which, and whose and to a lesser degree whoever, whomever2, whatever, whichever, and whosever. For example, the following italicized interrogative pronouns function as subject complements:

  • The mother of this rowdy child is who?
  • Your best friend was whom2?
  • The secret of the old clock is what?
  • His boat is which?
  • The cat with the misshapen ears is whose?
  • The winner can be whoever.
  • The loser can be whomever2.
  • Our family activity can be whatever
  • The prize will be whichever.
  • That hat might be whosever.

Direct Objects

The third grammatical function that interrogative pronouns perform is the direct object. A direct object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a transitive verb and answers the question “who?” or “what?” receives the action of the verb. The interrogative pronouns in English that function as direct objects are who3, whom, what, which, and whose and to a lesser extent whoever, whomever2, whatever, whichever, and whosever. For example, the following italicized interrogative pronouns function as direct objects:

  • What have you baked for the party?
  • Who3 did you call last night?
  • Whom have you asked already?
  • You painted which with the primer?
  • Whose did the evil man run over?
  • Whatever have you done?
  • Whoever3 have you beaten?
  • Whomever will you pick?
  • You may borrow whichever.
  • He may borrow whosever.

Object Complements

The fourth grammatical function that interrogative pronouns perform is the object complement. Object complements are defined as nouns, pronouns, noun phrases, adjectives, and adjective phrases that directly follow and modify the direct object. The interrogative pronouns in English that function as object complements are what, which, and whose and to a lesser extent whatever, whichever, and whosever. For example, the following italicized interrogative pronouns function as object complements:

  • The boss appointed her what?
  • You painted the walls in my bathroom which?
  • The committee named the prize whose?
  • The boss can appoint her whatever.
  • You can paint the walls in my bathroom whichever.
  • The committee can name the prize whosever.

Indirect Objects

The fifth grammatical function that interrogative pronouns perform is the indirect object. An indirect object is word, phrase, or clause that indicates to or for whom or what the action of a ditransitive verb is performed. The interrogative pronouns in English that function as indirect objects are who3, whom, what, which, and whose and to a lesser degree whoever, whomever2, whatever, whichever, and whosever. For example, the following italicized interrogative pronouns function as indirect objects:

  • Who3 did Grandpa loan some money?
  • Whom did you mail the package?
  • What are you giving a good scrubbing?
  • She wants to give which a new haircut?
  • Mom bought whose some new shoes?
  • Whoever3 did Grandpa loan some money?
  • Whomever did you mail the package?
  • Whatever are you giving a good scrubbing?
  • Whichever does she want to give a new haircut?
  • Whosever did Mom buy some new shoes?

Prepositional Complements

The sixth grammatical function that interrogative pronouns perform is the prepositional complement. A prepositional complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows a preposition and completes the meaning of the prepositional phrase. The interrogative pronouns in English that function as prepositional complements are who3, whom, what, which, and whose and to a lesser degree whoever, whomever2, whatever, whichever, and whosever. For example, the following italicized interrogative pronouns function as prepositional complements:

  • Who3 were you looking for?
  • To whom did you give the million dollars?
  • You fell down and exposed yourself during what?
  • Which were you looking at?
  • With whose did you meet today?
  • Whoever3 were you looking for?
  • Whomever did you give the million dollars to?
  • Whatever is the teacher not allowed to talk about?
  • Whichever were you looking at?
  • Whosever did you meet with today?

1. Some English speakers will hypercorrect and use the object pronouns whom and whomever in the subject position. Hypercorrection is when a speaker or writer overgeneralizes a rule to the point of making a new error.
2. Prescriptive grammars proscribe the use of the object pronouns whom and whomever in the subject complement position similar to the proscription of the personal object pronouns as subject complements.
3. Prescriptive grammars proscribe the use of the subject pronouns who and whoever in object positions.

References

Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman & Nina Hyams. 2006. An introduction to language. Boston: Wadsworth Publishing.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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