Lesson #192: Inversions of Word Order When Using Interrogative and Relative Pronouns

‘Who’, ‘how’, ‘which’, ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘where’ – these are often called question words or interrogative pronouns. But they are also relative pronouns. These two different functions sometimes lead to common mistakes, especially in relation to where they are placed in a sentence’s word order. In this Lesson we will look at the functions of both separately and together.

Our text for today’s lesson is an American classic, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) – the story of a young woman’s moral failure in Puritan Boston, her interrogation, and the new ways in which she relates with the community around her.

A perfect classic with which to explore interrogative and relative pronouns!


These include the following:

  • Who
  • Whom
  • Whose
  • Which
  • When
  • What
  • Where
  • Why
  • How

These can all be either interrogative and relative pronouns, depending on their place in a sentence.

✍️ However, there is one distinction: where we would use ‘what’ as an interrogative pronoun, we use ‘that’ as a relative pronoun.

📙 ‘What did it betoken? Had seven long years, under the torture of the scarlet letter, inflicted so much of misery, and wrought out no repentance?’

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘… Hester Prynne yet struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal was guilty like herself.’

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)


When we form questions in English we use interrogative pronouns with inversion.

✍️ This means that the subject and verb (in particular, the auxiliary or ‘helping verb’) change their position from that which they would have in a statement.

✒️ So for example,

Statement: You are hungry.

Question (using inversion): Are you hungry?

Statement: He wrote that letter.

Question: Did he write that letter?

Notice how we use the question marker ‘did’ at the beginning of the last example, because verbs of action (rather than the verb ‘to be’) may need such a marker.

📙 “Why did I not understand? O Hester Prynne, thou little, little knowest all the horror of this thing!”

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)

📙 “This is already the better life! Why did we not find it sooner?”

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)

This is where the interrogative pronouns or question words listed above come in useful. They ask more specifically about the manner or time or person behind the action:

  • Why did he write that letter?
  • What letter did he write?
  • How did he write that letter?
  • Which letter did he send?
  • Who wrote it?
  • When did he write it?
  • Where did he send it to?

Again, here are even better examples, taken from Hawthorne’s writing:

📙 “But where is this mother of thine [yours]?”

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘“What is he?” murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other.’

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)

📙 “I leave thee alone; alone with thy infant, and the scarlet letter! How is it, Hester?”

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)

📙 “… Where, my kind doctor, did you gather those herbs, with such a dark, flabby leaf?”

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)

📙 “Why should a wretched man, guilty, we will say, of murder, prefer to keep the dead corpse buried in his own heart, rather than fling it forth at once, and let the universe take care of it!”

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)


✍️ The important thing to realise is that we do not use inversion where relative pronouns are concerned. ✍️

Remember: relative pronouns introduce a dependent clause, giving us more information about the main clause. (The clause is dependent if it contains a subject and verb but still needs to be connected to an independent clause to make sense).

Notice the word order in Hawthorne’s writing here below, a quotation taken from Hester Prynne’s speech:

📙 ‘… thou [you] knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother’s rights, and how much the stronger they are, when that mother has but [only] her child and the scarlet letter!’

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘Hester Prynne looked at the man of skill, and even then, with her fate hanging in the balance, was startled to perceive what a change had come over his features,— how much uglier they were,— how his dark complexion seemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen,— since the days when she had familiarly known him.’

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)

✒️ Observation: If the last clause of the quotation above were turned into a question, the word order would be as follows: Since when had she known him?

📙 ‘… little Pearl was pointing her finger towards old Roger Chillingworth, who stood at no great distance from the scaffold.’

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (emphasis mine)


To clarify what we have covered, here are a few examples of the correct vs. incorrect word inversion of relative pronouns:

⚠️ This is wrong: Tell me where are you hurting.

It is wrong because the word order here is inverted to reflect a question (where are you hurting?) rather than a statement using a relative pronoun.

✒️ This is right: Tell me where you are hurting.

Here is another example of how not to do it, and how to use it correctly:

⚠️ Incorrect: Please share with us how did you like that book.

✒️ This is correct: Please share with us how you like(d) that book.

It is correct because we are dealing with a relative pronoun in ‘how’ and not a question marker. Because of this, we do not need ‘did’ at all here.

Don’t worry if you find what we have covered here a bit challenging! Many native English speakers will mix these up and invert them in the wrong order from time to time. With practice and exposure to books (because the writer has more time to correct what he has written than a speaker has time to correct their conversational mistakes), everything will become clearer and more natural!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)