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    • Join Date: Sep 2007
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    How to teach word order in questions

    My pre-intermediate students are finding it difficult to understand what is the subject in questions and when an auxilliary verb is required. Who knows an easy way to get this across?

  1. rewboss's Avatar

    • Join Date: Feb 2006
    • Posts: 1,552

    Re: How to teach word order in questions

    You always need an auxiliary verb for a question. You can't have a question without an auxiliary verb.

    For the purposes of making questions, auxiliary verbs are: have, do, be, and all the modal verbs. Note that "have" can sometimes be a main verb (when it means "possess" or "must"), and "do" can also be a main verb. As a rule of thumb, it's an auxiliary if it's only there for the grammar, but a main verb if it describes an action ("do your homework", for example, describes the action of completing one's homework).

    To make a question, all you really need to do is to swap subject and auxiliary verb, like this:

    It is raining. -> Is it raining?
    Pete has made a cake. -> Has Pete made a cake?
    Piedro is Spanish. -> Is Piedro Spanish?
    Sue can see me. -> Can Sue see me?

    Note that "be" is a special case. But in all the other sentences, the subject comes before the main verb. This is how the subject is identified in modern English -- it must come before the main verb.

    But with the simple past and simple present, we don't have an auxiliary verb, so there's nothing to swap the subject with:

    Mary works as a teacher. ->

    We can't swap subject and main verb, because that would put the subject after the main verb, and we're not allowed to do that. (If they've read Shakespeare, you have to explain that the rules were different in Shakespeare's day.)

    To the rescue, wearing its "Superverb" costume, the all-purpose auxiliary verb "do" leaps in to save the day. It doesn't change the meaning or the tense, but it helps us ask questions. Now we can change the sentence around to make a question, leaving the subject and main verb in the correct positions:

    Does Mary work as a teacher?

    And there it is -- Superverb saves the day!

    A similar principle applies to making negative sentences: we do this by putting "not" after the auxiliary verb, but when the sentence has no auxiliary verb, Superverb has to leap in and save the day:

    Sue can't see me.
    Mary doesn't work as a teacher.

  2. #3

    Re: How to teach word order in questions

    In fact, for subject questions you don't use an auxiliary verb - for example 'Who killed Roger Rabbit?'

    The way I usually explain in class is by giving a basic sentence, for example
    'The tiger ate Pablo'

    Then rub 'Pablo' off the board and put a question mark in its place and elicit the object question form 'Who did the tiger eat? '(This form uses an auxiliary verb)

    Now repeat the sentence and rub off 'The tiger' and replace with a question mark. Elicit the subject question 'What ate Pablo?' (Or 'Who ate Pablo?' if you prefer.)

    There's a good free photocopiable activity you can use with your students for this on ACTIVITY
    It gives lots of speaking practice with this grammar point.

    When students have understood the difference between subject and object questions you can get the class to write their own questions to make a quiz.

  3. rewboss's Avatar

    • Join Date: Feb 2006
    • Posts: 1,552

    Re: How to teach word order in questions

    Quote Originally Posted by Clare James View Post
    'Who killed Roger Rabbit?'
    Who framed Roger Rabbit?

    But indeed, yes; I forgot about that. I didn't clock the fact that we were talking about subject questions and object questions.

    Another way to explain:

    Take a sentence you want to turn into a question. Replace the thing you're asking about with a question word. Is it at the beginning of the sentence? If so, then you already have a question. Hooray. If not, then you have to move it to the beginning of the sentence, and then shuffle the subject and auxiliary verb around, calling on the help of Superverb if necessary.

    I've actually had students clutching pieces of paper with a word on each, standing in a line and reading out their word in turn to make a sentence; and then shuffled them around, with an extra student playing the part of Superverb to leap in to save the day. I can't say I succeeded in getting them to internalise the rule, but at least they never forgot having the lesson...

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