Which Comes First? Who or Where?

We started to wonder about the question words in the phrase "Who does what and goes where when."

Neal Whitman, Writing for
9-minute read
Episode #780
The Quick And Dirty

English handles question words in specific ways. For example, only one question word can go at the beginning of a sentence; you can't have two in a row. But it's different in some other languages.

I saw a "family calendar" for sale in a gift shop last week. Underneath the label was the explanatory phrase: “Who does what and goes where when.” That phrase is a good illustration of several rules about how we form questions in English that you may not have considered before. 

Direct and indirect questions

First, let’s talk about whether that description of the calendar is actually a question. It wasn’t punctuated with a question mark, after all. It wasn’t asking me personally, as I stood there looking at it, “Who does what? Who goes where when?” Instead, the description was telling me, “This calendar will answer the questions of who does what, and who goes where when.” Or at least, it will after I buy it and fill in all those names, dates, and locations! 

Questions that are implied as part of a statement are called indirect questions. Unlike a direct question like “What did you do?” an indirect question isn’t a complete sentence. Instead, it acts as a noun phrase inside a larger sentence; for example, it could be the direct object of a verb like “know” in “I’d like to know who does what and goes where when.” I used an indirect question as the object of the preposition “of” a few sentences ago when I said, “the question of who does what and goes where when.” In other words, an indirect question is a kind of noun clause. If you want to know more about noun clauses, we talked about them in episode 410. 

Now, let's take a look at some grammar rules that apply to both indirect and direct questions.

Joining entire questions with ‘and’

Let’s take a close look at the word “and” in this calendar description. The “and” joins two verb phrases that contain question words: “does what” and “goes where when.” So the question as written on the front of the calendar is a shorter way of writing two questions: 

“Who does what, and who goes where when.”

So one way of asking about more than one thing at a time is just to use the conjunction “and” to join your two questions. Who are you, and what do you want? Where are we going, and when will we arrive?

‘Who’ and ‘what’ in the same question: Subject comes first

For the second way of asking about more than one thing at a time, we can look at the two questions from the calendar separately. 

Let’s start with “Who does what?” In this question, we’re asking about the subject (the person performing the action) and the direct object (the activity that gets done). The subject “who” comes before the verb “does,” and the direct object “what” comes after it, which is the normal position for subjects and direct objects in English. 

However, “who” isn’t at the beginning of the question just because it’s the subject. As English speakers know, we put our question word at the beginning to form a question. If it happens to be the subject, the word order is the same as in a regular declarative sentence. If the question word is a direct object, then that comes first, even before the subject. Modifying our calendar example a bit, we could have the phrase “What everyone does,” with the direct object “what” coming right before the subject “everyone.”

So when you’re asking about both the subject and the direct object, which one comes first? As we see in our calendar example, the subject comes first. The direct object stays right where it would be if it were an ordinary word instead of a question word. 

This may seem obvious, but it’s not. In some languages, such as Russian, all the question words in a question need to be at the beginning. So if English were like Russian, instead of “Who does what?” it would be “Who what does?” In other languages, such as Chinese, all the question words go right where they’d be if they weren’t question words. So if English were like Chinese, instead of “Who does what?” it would be … well, OK, it would still be “Who does what?” since “who” is the subject, and subjects come before their verbs in English. 

Let’s find a better example. Think about the question “Who does Aardvark want to do what?” We have “who,” the subject of “do,” all the way at the front of the sentence, even before we have “Aardvark,” the subject of “want.” But if English were like Chinese, it would be “Aardvark wants who to do what?”

Detour: Echo questions

At this point, you might be thinking that the question “Aardvark wants who to do what?” actually sounds fine, even though “Who what does?” sounds like nonsense to English speakers. You’re partially right. If Squiggly were to tell me that Aardvark wants Fenster to roller skate in a buffalo herd, I might not believe I’d heard right. I’d probably ask, “Squiggly wants who to do what?” to prompt Fenster to repeat what he’d said. This kind of question is called an echo question. But for ordinary, non-echo questions in English, the usual way of doing it is to put one question word, and only one, at the beginning. 

‘Where’ and ‘when’ in the same question

Now let’s move on to the second question on the calendar: “Who goes where when.” This one has not two, but three question words. The “who” comes first, of course, just like it does in “Who does what?” What about “where” and “when”? 

In ordinary, declarative sentences in English, we can specify a place and time in that order, as in “Fenster goes to the football game at noon.” So having the “where” come before the “when” in the question makes sense. 

On the other hand, we could also mention a time first and then a place, as in “Fenster goes at noon to the football game.” So could we also phrase the question as “Who goes when where?” To my ear, that doesn’t sound so good. I checked some of the corpora at english-corpora.org, the new home of corpora such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which regular listeners have heard me mention before. When I searched for forms of the verb “go” followed by “where when,” I got examples like these:

  • “When you get to running your own jobs, then you can decide who goes where when,” Stick yelled, spreading a thick rope of mortar in one quick twist of his trowel.
  • I keep the document as a record of what went where when
  • time to talk with them about who's going where when

 I also did a few ordinary internet searches and found examples such as:

  • Salves, Ointments and Balms—Which Goes Where When?

However, when I did the same searches with “go” followed by “when where,” I got nothing. So it may be that in multiple questions involving “where” and “when,” the “where” comes first. 

But I needed to do another search. For one thing, I had only been searching for sentences with the verb “go.” Second, by searching for sentences with “where” and “when” right next to each other, I ended up with only sentences that already had another question word at the beginning. To really see which of these words is the winner, I needed to find sentences in which the only question words were “where” and “when,” and then see which of those words appeared at the beginning and which appeared farther into a sentence. 

To do this, I asked for the question words that appeared most frequently up to six words before a sentence ending with “where” and a question mark. As it turns out, sentences similar to “Who goes where when” are kind of rare. After searching several of the English corpora, the only example I found was:

  • You’re asking me where I was when

Joining entire questions with “and,” part 2: One-word questions

Now I want to talk about some of the sentences I found that I wasn’t looking for when I did that last search. They reveal other rules about forming English questions. Here’s a selection of other “when”/”where” questions I found:

First, the "when" questions:

  • So when do we see Marcuse and where?
  • When can we meet and where?

And now the "where" questions:

  • If so, where did it originate, and when?
  • How did they die, and where, and when?
  • Who did it, where was it done, and when?
  • Where shall we meet, and when?

Some of these examples have “when” and then “where,” and some have “where” and then “when,” but all of them use the conjunction “and” to attach the final question word.

This brings us back to where we started: joining entire questions with a conjunction. This time, though, some of the questions consist of only the question word. 

Let’s take the last example: “Where shall we meet, and when?” It’s an abbreviated way of asking “Where shall we meet, and when shall we meet?” The isolated “when” stands in for an entire question, which we have to mentally fill in using content from the first question. I found many more of these kinds of questions than I found with “where” and “when” right next to each other. My conclusion is that although the grammar allows “where” and “when” to be right next to each other, it’s easier for speakers to use an “and” to combine the questions. 

Joining entire questions with “and,” part 3: Similar functions

And since we’re back to the topic of using “and” to ask multiple questions, what happens if we search for the phrase “when and where” or “where and when”? All of a sudden, examples are easy to find. In COCA alone, I found hundreds of examples of both “when and where” and “where and when,” like these: 

  • Where and when were those lofty and laconic speeches delivered that we read about in books?
  • Describe where and when the seventh of this harmony actually resolves. 
  • That teaches us where and when we should have intervened.
  • Detailed activity logs tell customers exactly when and where their data is being accessed
  • When and where did humans develop language? 
  • This should influence when and where the shuttles drive. 

If we’re now joining “where” and “when” with “and,” should we go back to that first question, “Who does what?” and see about joining “who” and “what” with an “and”? How would a question like that sound?

Who and what does?

Wow, that’s no good at all. We’re trying to use a conjunction to join a subject and a direct object, and English doesn’t do that. But when it comes to forming multiple questions, even this rule isn’t obvious, because in some languages, “Who and what does?” is fine. In particular, languages like Russian, which put all their question words at the beginning of a sentence, are more likely to allow it. But in English, you can join multiple question words with a conjunction if they perform the same function. Here are some other examples from COCA: 

And why do you think he is so afraid of who and what I am now?

In that one, “who” and “what” are both complements of the verb “am.”

She’ll tell us what and who we can expect to see in the highly-anticipated new season.

In that one, “what” and “who” are both direct objects of the verb “see.”

Please explain how and why this is appropriate at a high school basketball game.

In that one, “how” and “why” are both modifiers of the verb phrase “is appropriate at a high school basketball game.”

Summing up

Investigating the tag line “Who does what and goes where when” on the front of a calendar shows several rules about how questions are formed in the English language: 

  1. You can join entire questions with a conjunction. 
  2. You can also compress those questions into a single sentence that contains multiple question words. 
  3. In those questions, one and only one of the question words has to come at the beginning of the question. 
  4. The one that goes at the beginning is the one that would come first if it were in an ordinary declarative sentence. 
  5. When it’s not clear which one would come first, it’s more common to go back to joining separate questions with a conjunction. 
  6. One way of doing that is to state the full question first and let the later question words stand alone instead of repeating the question. 
  7. Another way is to put all the question words at the beginning, joined by a conjunction — but only if those question words have the same job.

The last thing I realized when I looked at that calendar was this: It’s July! No wonder that calendar was on clearance.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.