Section 4: Interrogatives

Interrogatives are the KEY MARKERS for interrogative clauses (a type of dependent clause). The interrogative structure class looks very similar to the relative. Its members are who, whom, whose, which, what, where, why, when, and how. Also, like relatives, these interrogatives are also pronomial, replacing the antecedent. Whereas subordinate clauses are adverbial, and relative clauses are adjectival, interrogative clauses are nominal.

Interrogatives normally serve as the subject of the dependent clause:

I wonder who left this envelope on my desk.

  • who left this envelope on my desk is functioning nominally as the direct object (I wonder SOMETHING.)

When this envelope was left on my desk is a question that I asked Gail.

  • When this envelope was left on my desk is functioning nominally as the subject, with is as the main verb of the independent clause (SOMETHING is a question that I asked Gail.)
  • NOTE: that I asked Gail is an adjectival relative clause modifying QUESTION.

As a nominal, interrogative clauses can fill any of the common nominal slots in a sentence: subject, subject complement, direct object, object complement, indirect object, object of the preposition, adjective complement, or appositive.

Interrogatives also introduce direct questions:

  • Who left this envelope on my desk?
  • When was this envelope left on my desk?
  • Which mail carrier brought this envelope?

They play a pronominal role in questions. A pronoun substituting for a noun phrase can answer questions starting with pronominal interrogatives:

Who left this envelope on my desk?

Someone did; he did.

Which cheesecake did you bake?

I baked all the cheesecakes.

Like relatives, there are also adverbial interrogatives. They play an adverbial role in questions. For example, when can stand in for a time expression:

When are you leaving?

  • You are leaving then.

How can stand in for an expression of manner:

How did you enjoy the play?

  • I enjoyed it greatly.

To test your understanding of the concepts discussed on this page, begin with the link below for an example practice exercise:


For a bit more of a challenge, analyze the following sentence from The Brothers Karamazov for relatives.

Fyodor Pavlovitch looked for some time as though he did not understand which child he was talking about, and even as though he was surprised to hear that he had a little son in the house.

To review your answers to these two samples, check the INTERROGATIVE SAMPLES ANALYSES page.