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Interrogative pronouns

Interrogative pronouns introduce questions. Morphologically simple question words are:

Example 1

a. wie
b. wat
c. welk(e)
d. waar
e. hoe

The majority of the question words have morphologically complex forms. These are often combinations of hoe how and an adjective (2a) or waar where and a postposition (2b) and (2c), but other constructions occur. Examples are:

Example 2

a. hoeveel
how much/many
b. waarom
c. waarmee
with what
d. wanneer
e. wat voor (een)
what for (a)
what sort of

Many forms are no longer perceived as morphologically complex by speakers. The last form, (2e), is special in that it consists of three words that are still regarded as separate, although they jointly realize the interrogative function (een is optional under most circumstances and is mostly absent with uncountable nouns).

Question words differ in the elements they require for an answer. Some, for example wie who, require a noun phrase - they can be answered by, say,John. Others are answered by a numeral or an adverbial phrase, e.g. hoeveel how much/many and wanneer when.

Question words are independent arguments, but some can also occur attributively within a noun phrase (compare (3a) and (3b)).

Example 3

a. Wanneer ga je?
When are you going?
b. Welke naam had jij?
Which name did you have?

If the question word in (3b) appears independently, it resembles an anaphoric pronoun and requires an antecedent, as in (4).

Example 4

We gaven elkaar een naam. - Welk-e had jij?
PRO.1PL give.1PL.PST each_other INDF.SG name(C) which-C.SG AUX.2SG.PST PRO.2SG
We gave each other a name. - Which was yours?

As with anaphoric pronouns, the question word welke/welk needs to have the appropriate gender and number to match its antecedent (common singular in example (4)). Welk is the only question word that can mark a gender distinction morphologically.

[+]Classifying question words

There are at least two ways in which question words can be subdivided. The easiest is according to morphological complexity: there are simple and complex forms. The simple forms are a fixed list of five. Examples (5a-e) illustrate these forms.

Example 5

a. Wie ben jij?
Who are you
b. Wat zeg je?
What are you saying
c. Welk snoepje wil je?
Which sweet would you like
d. Waar ben je?
Where are you
e. Hoe is het met je?
How are you doing?

The inventory of complex forms is more open, as waar can be combined with any adposition to create a complex question word. Moreover, the form hoe can be used to make question words with adjectives, for example hoelang how long. A handful of frequent and well-established formations of this sort are considered univerbations and are spelled as one word, while other combinations are regarded as separate words. See (6a-e) for examples.

Example 6

a. Waarom zeg je niets?
Why aren't you saying anything?
b. Wanneer kom je thuis?
When are you coming home?
c. Hoeveel kinderen heb je?
How many children have you got?
d. Vanwaar deze angst?
Where is this fear coming from?
e. Wat voor (een) auto heb je?
What sort of car do you drive?

The second option is to sort question words according to the elements they require as answers (and thus what they can be said to replace syntactically). Such a division leads to at least four subgroups, as there are question words that require noun phrases (example (7a)), prepositional phrases (7b), numerals (7c) or adverbials (7d).

Example 7

a. Wie is hij? - Mijn baas.
Who is he? - My boss.
b. Wanneer kom je thuis? - In de middag.
When are you coming home? - In the afternoon
c. Hoeveel kost dit? - Drie euro.
How much does it cost? - Three euros.
d. Waar woon je? - Daar.
Where do you live? - Over there.

This division is not without problems, as many question words can take more than one type of reply. For example, wanneer when can be answered by an adverbial, e.g. gisteren yesterday or by a prepositional phrase, as in (7b) above.

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Some sources (e.g. E-ANS) reserve the term "pronoun" for those question words that can be answered by a noun phrase, obviously with the idea in mind that only those pronouns actually stand in for a noun. According to this view, only wie who, wat what, welk(e) which and wat voor (een) what sort of count as interrogative pronouns. If the question word requires a numeral or an adverbial phrase, as for example hoeveel how much/many or wanneer when, the terms "interrogative numeral" and "interrogative adverbial" are used. However, this division is not without problems, as is shown by the class with the confusing label "interrogative pronominal adverbials" illustrated by waarin in what, waardoor how/because of what and waarop on what, which all require a prepositional phrase as answer.

[+]Syntactic independence

Most interrogatives are syntactically independent. The question words welk(e) which, wat voor (een) what sort of and hoeveel how much/many can also occur attributively within a noun phrase (examples (8)).

Example 8

a. Welk boek lees je net?
Which book are you reading right now?
b. Wat voor (een) wijn is dit?
What sort of wine is this?
c. Hoeveel kinderen heb je?
How many children do you have?

When these question words appear without their noun, they resemble anaphoric pronouns and require an antecedent.

Example 9

a. Er liggen hier drie boeken. Welk lees je net?
There are three books here. Which one are you reading right now?
b. Deze wijn is lekker. Wat is dit er voor één?
This wine is nice. What kind is it?
c. Je hebt kinderen, niet waar? Hoeveel heb je er?
You have children, haven't you? How many do you have?
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The examples in (9) show two interesting complications. In (9b), the phrase "wat voor (een)" is broken up by various words and the indefinite article een is replaced by the numeral één one. In both (9b) and (9c), the lexical item er is inserted (see also here).


The question word welk(e) is special in that it marks gender and number in accordance with its antecedent, just as it agrees with its noun in attributive position. Singular neuter antecedents require welk, for common gender or plural antecedents, welke is used.

Example 10

a. Heb je een boek gekocht? Welk?
Did you buy a book? Which?
b. Heb je een computer gekocht? Welk-e?
AUX.2SG.PST PRO.2SG INDF.SG computer.C.SG buy.PTCP which-C.SG
Did you buy a computer? Which?
c. Heb je bloem-en gekocht? Welk-e?
AUX.2SG.PST PRO.2SG flower.PL buy.PTCP which.PL
Did you buy flowers? Which?