How to ask open questions in English

by | Mar 29, 2019 | Interrogative Forms

If you require more information than a simple yes or no answer then you are going to need to learn how to ask open questions in English. Open questions or “wh” questions ask for more information than a simple yes or no answer. We also call them “wh” questions because we use question words which mostly start with “wh”.

Open question words or “wh” words.

How to ask open questions in English

Here is a list of question words which will come in useful if you want to know how to ask open questions in English. Take a look at “How to ask questions in English” for more information about question words.  

True open question words:

What, Which, When, Where, Who, Why.

“How” question words:

How, How much, How many, How often, How + adjective.

Question phrases:

Where in Europe, How many times this year, When in summer, etc.

How to ask open questions in English.

The structure of open questions is usually like this:

[“Wh-” word or phrase] + [Auxiliary Verb] + [Subject] + [Main Verb]+ [Object or Other Information] + ?

Negative open questions.

Although making “yes/no” questions negative can be confusing, on the other hand, it’s no problem with open or open questions.

To form a negative open question we simply need to add “not” to the sentence.

There are two ways of doing this:

  1. By contracting the auxiliary verb:

This is very common in spoken English , especially with the question word “why”.

For example:

  • Why can’t you speak Japanese?
  • Why hasn’t your boss called me yet?
  • Why won’t you come to the office party?
  1. As “not,” after the subject.

This way is slightly more formal but is also fine to use in spoken language if you don’t like using contractions. For example:

  • Why can you not speak Japanese?
  • Why has your boss not called me yet?
  • When are you not busy?

Examples of open questions in different tenses

Examples of open present simple questions.

The present simple describes facts and routines. Adverbs of frequency are very common with the present simple.

These are some examples of how to ask open questions in English:

  • Why do you enjoy Skype English lessons?
  • How do you feel in the mornings?
  • What does he watch on T.V every day?
  • Why can you sing in tune?

As with YES/NO questions, we must be careful with the verb TO BE! The verb to be behaves like an auxiliary verb and goes after the open word or phrase.

  • Why am I boring you?
  • How often does the clock chime?
  • When is a good time to call?
  • Where in the city is the concert tonight?
  • Why are the children afraid of spiders?

Warning! In some questions that start with “who”, we do not know who the subject is. We are asking the question to find out the subject. In these cases we have to change the structure a little.

Here are some examples where we know the subject vs some where we don’t know the subject:

  • Who does the president trust? versus Who trusts the president?
  • Who loves the puppy? versus Who does the puppy love?
  • Who does your brother play with? versus Who plays with your brother?

Examples of open present continuous questions.

If we need to talk about something that is occurring now, in this moment, we use the present continuous or progressive.  The verb to BE is in the present tense, as an auxiliary verb and the main verb is in the present participle (ING) form.

  • What am I doing here?
  • Which topics are you studying in English this term?
  • Why is the Queen feeling unwell?

Examples with the present perfect tense.

The present perfect connects an event in the past with the present, the experience or fact is still true at the time of speaking. Remember that you will need the present form of the verb “have” as an auxiliary and the past participle of the main verb.The present perfect tense is more common with yes/no questions, but there it is possible to ask open questions.

Here are some examples:

  • How many times have you been to Paris?
  • Why has your sister not seen your new car yet?
  • Why haven’t we met our goals yet?
  • How many times has your boyfriend watched the new Star Wars movie?

Examples with the present perfect continuous tense.

The present perfect continuous tense emphasizes that something started in the past and is still actively happening or continuing. You can think of it as a combination of the present perfect and the present continuous (progressive) tenses.

For example:

  • What have you been working on today?
  • Why haven’t you been sleeping enough recently?
  • Who has been bothering you?
  • How often have you been taking your medication this week?

Examples with the past simple tense.

We use the past simple when we want to describe events that happened and were completed in the past. The auxiliary part of the sentence is the past of the verb to do – “did”, although we can also use the past of modal verbs such as “ can  – could”.

  • What did you call me?
  • How did she seal the deal?
  • When did they accept your pitch?
  • How could you buy food with no money?

Watch out with the verb TO BE! As with the present simple open questions, if the main verb is “to be” you need to use its past form in place of the auxiliary verb:

  • Why was I mistaken?
  • How often were you late to the conferences?
  • How happy was she with your results?
  • When were they built?

Examples with the past continuous tense.

We use the past continuous, also known as the past progressive, to describe events or actions that happened in the past and which continued for a certain period of time. We use the past form of the verb “to be” as the auxiliary and the main verb takes the present participle (ING) form.

  • When was I bothering you with my questions?
  • How long were you waiting for him yesterday?
  • Why was Gwen working for the government?
  • Which line manager was not adhering to protocol?

Examples with the past perfect tense.

The past perfect tense connects two moments in the past. We use it to describe how one event occurred before another. The event that occurred first uses the past perfect and to describe the later action or event we use the simple past. We use “had” as the auxiliary verb and the main verb is the past participle form. This tense is not very common in open questions although knowing how to ask open questions in the past perfect can be useful:

  • Why had you not thought about adopting before you tried IVF?
  • How long had the water boiled before you added the pasta?
  • How long had you known your husband before you married him?
  • Had you seen the first movie before you read the book?

Examples with the past perfect continuous tense.

If you understand past perfect and continuous tenses this tense is easy to get the hang of. The use of the past perfect continuous is similar to the past perfect tense, the only difference being that the past perfect continuous indicates that the action continued for a period of time. We use “had” as the auxiliary verb and the main verb is “been + ING”. Although this tense is rarely seen, it is still important to know how to ask this type of open question in English, so here are some examples:

  • How long had you been waiting before he arrived?
  • Where had the fire been burning before the fire brigade put it out?
  • How long had the cat been acting unusual for before you decided to take him to the vet?
  • Why had they not been learning English before they came to Canada?

Examples with the future simple tense.

We use “will” or “won’t” and sometimes “shall” to form the future simple tense in the following situations:

    • Promises
    • Making offers
    • Spontaneous decisions
    • Making predictions
    • Conditional structures

The questions need to start with “will” as the auxiliary verb and the main verb is the infinitive form (without to):

  • When will you marry me?
  • Why won’t he help us?
  • How will you solve the problem?
  • What will you say to him if he calls?
  • When will you finish this project?
  • Which job will you take if they offer you both positions?

Examples with the future continuous tense.

We use the future perfect to talk about something that is going to happen in the future for a prolonged period of time. The auxiliary verb is “will”, and we use “be” plus the “ING” form of the main verb. Examples:

  • How often will I be working with John on this project?
  • When will she be staying with you this summer?
  • Why will we be needing extra help this quarter?
  • Why won’t the politicians be working this week?

Examples with the future perfect tense.

We use questions in the future perfect continuous tense to ask about an event that will or won’t have finished at some point in the future. It connects a finishing event with a point in the future and is more complicated to constrict in the question format because you need to include more information or context. As with the other perfect tenses, we must use the verb “to have” with the past participle (the ED form for regular verbs). We use either “Will” or “won’t” as the auxiliary verb and the verb “to have” in the infinitive form.

Here are some examples:

  • How long will I have worked here when I get my bonus?
  • How many points will she have gained in the competition?
  • Which company will the government have declared invalid if the new bill goes through?
  • When will you have finished the article?
  • Why won’t you have met the deadline?

Examples with the perfect continuous tense.

Finally, we can use the future perfect continuous to connect two future events, although we have to provide context about the time frame. We use “will” or “won’t” as the auxiliary and “have been” with the present participle (ING) form of the main verb:

  • What will you have been studying in the library?
  • How long will you have been doing the books for when this financial year comes to an end?
  • How long will you have been dating John for when you get married?


Now that you’ve leared how to ask open questions in english, if you would like more information about how to ask different types of questions, click the following links:

Yes/No questions

Question tags

If you are interested in studying how to ask open questions in English with one of our native teachers than you can sign up here for a free no obligation trial class.