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What - Part 1

What - Part 1

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Requirements

What (subject)

Hello! In this lesson, we are going to learn how to use the question word "what". We use the question word "what" to ask about places, things, and ideas.

We can use the question "what" to ask about one place, thing, or idea or many places, things or ideas.

We can use the question word "what" to identify places, things, or ideas.

We can also use the word "what" to elicit a definition of a word. For example, we could point at a car and ask "What is it?". Or we could ask a question to get a definition of an idea, like "What is love?" or "What is a friend?". The question word "what" is neither formal nor informal.

In this lesson, we will concentrate on the question word "what" as it is used to identify grammatical subjects. A dictionary definition of the subject of the sentence is that it is the constituent of the sentence that consists of a noun, noun phrase, or noun substitute which often refers to the one performing the action or being in the state expressed by the predicate or verb.

For example, the subject of the sentence "The museum is big." is "the museum.". So the question word "what" would be used in a question to find out the answer to: (translate: What is big? – the museum) We would ask "What is big?" and the answer would be "the museum.".

When we make a question using the question word "what", we usually place the question word "what" at the beginning of the sentence. We have several set phrases which use the question word "what".

For example, we always say "What is your name?", "What is your address?", "What is your phone number?".

In this scenario, David and Jennifer are going for a walk in a new neighborhood. As they walk, they talk about the buildings they see.

Jennifer: What is it? (pointing) A school?

David: See? It is the post office.

Jennifer: The post office is old.

David: Yes, the post office is old. What is it? (pointing)

Jennifer: The library. What are they? (pointing)

David: They are windows.

Jennifer: They are clean. Oh no! (tripping)

David: What is it? (worried) holding arm out to steady her.

Jennifer: A shoe. It is dirty – and broken. (She broke her heel.)

Jennifer starts the conversation by pointing at the post office and asking "What is it? A school?". David notices some mailboxes outside the building, so he realizes it is a post office. Jennifer used the question word "what" because she is asking about a thing – a building. She uses the singular "is" because she is asking about one building.

David answers her question by saying "See? It is the post office." David points at the mailboxes in front of the post office. He says "See?" so that Jennifer will look at the mailboxes too.

David might ask Jennifer "What are they?" as he indicates the mailboxes. He would use the plural verb "to be" which is "are" because there are many windows.

Jennifer says "The post office is old.". She could have said "It is old.".
As they continue walking, David agrees with Jennifer by saying "Yes, the post office is old.". He points at another building and asks "What is it?". He could have asked "What is the building?".

Jennifer answers "The library." She could have answered "It it the library." or "The building is the library.". Jennifer indicates the shiny windows of the library. She asks David "What are they?". We notice that Jennifer uses the plural form of the verb "to be", which is "are".

She uses the plural form of the verb "to be" because she is asking about more than one similar thing – all the windows of the library. She also uses the plural pronoun "they". If she had been asking about only one window, she would have asked "What is it?".

David responds "They are windows.", to which Jennifer says "They are clean.". She could have said "The windows are clean.". Jennifer trips and gasps "Oh no!".

David asks the question "What is it?". In this case, the expression 'What is it?" means (translate: what is the matter?"). As we have learned, the question word "what" can refer to a thing, place or idea.

In this case, David asks it in reference to Jennifer's sudden gasp "Oh no!". It may refer to the idea of her discomfort. In any case, the expression "What is it?" can refer to a thing, place or idea, but it can also mean "What is the problem?" or (translate: What is the matter?).
Jennifer answers David's question as if it were a normal, literal "what" question – she answers as if the question refers to a physical object – she says "A shoe."

She sadly surveys her situation and adds "It is dirty – and broken.". She could have answered this question in a more abstract way by explaining that she had tripped and broken her shoe.

Now that we understand the use of the question word "what", let us listen to the conversation again. Listen for the question word what and answer the question in your mind as Jennifer and David ask and answer verbally.

Jennifer: What is it? (pointing) A school?

David: See? It is the post office.

Jennifer: The post office is old.

David: Yes, the post office is old. What is it?

Jennifer: The library. What are they?

David: They are windows.

Jennifer: They are clean. Oh no! (tripping)

David: What is it? (worried) holding arm out to steady her.

Jennifer: A shoe. It is dirty – and broken. (She broke her heel.)

It is a sad day for Jennifer. But it is great day for us! We have learned how to use the question word "what". "What is it?..... It is English!".