The grammar and word order for questions in English is challenging for many language learners. It can feel like there are too many verbs to select and arrange in the sentence. This often leads English learners to make incorrect questions like this:
- “Where you go today?”
- “How it happened?”
- “What it means?”
It’s true that most English speakers will have no difficulty understanding these questions. However, as a learner of English, forming questions this way severely limits your overall fluency and how “natural” you sound to others. Also, for business and academic purposes, writing these kinds of incorrect questions may appear unprofessional or sloppy.
If simply learning the grammar for English questions has not helped you to form them correctly, there’s another approach. Instead of focusing on grammar patterns, try thinking of English questions as collocations. Collocations are words that often appear next to one another as pairs or groups. In this situation, let’s think of collocations as “word pairs” that can be learned and practiced so that speaking becomes a matter of reflex and not grammar construction.
Even though we said we won’t focus on grammar, it’s important first to see why we will learn these particular word pairs for making questions. Here is the grammar structure for Wh- and How questions in English:
[Question Word] + [Auxiliary Verb] + [Subject] + [Main Verb]
Question words = Who, What, When, Where, Why, How
(Common) Auxiliary Verbs = be, can, could, do, have, might, should, will, would
Now we see that the example questions at the beginning of this article are missing Auxiliary Verbs. Think of the word “Auxiliary” as meaning “helping.” These verbs “help” the main verbs to complete the sentence. Without them the sentence sounds quite incomplete and strange to native speakers.
The important thing to remember is that questions with questions words always need an auxiliary verb (well, not always, but most of the time. We will explore the exceptions in another article). So it’s helpful to think of question words at the beginning of a question as needing the auxiliary verb – the two go together in a pair! In truth, auxiliary verbs help the main verb, but for the sake of improving fluency it’s easier to think of the question word and auxiliary verb as a pair.
(Interestingly, if you listen to native speakers begin a question and pause to think, they almost always pause after the auxiliary verb. For example, “What do… you want to do?” It would be unusual for a native speaker to say, “What… do you want to do?” That shows that even native speakers think of question words and auxiliary verbs as collocations).
To make use of this memory shortcut, practice saying question words and auxiliary verbs in pair. Repeat them in different combinations so that your brain feels that they really do belong together. Then start forming full question sentence. Once you have developed the habit of pairing auxiliary verbs with questions words, forming simple yes/no questions is extremely easy. Just remove the questions word!
- “When did you eat dinner?” → “Did you eat dinner?”
Practicing in this way will help you to develop a sense of what word order sound “right.” And once you have that, your English will begin to sound right to everyone else as well!