Why is the grammatical structure of "What keeps him going?" right? I got a bit confused over this, when I realized that this structure fundamentally contradicts the basic rule I teach my students: "Questions in the simple present always include do or does (if there's no other auxiliary verb), if they don't start with who".

  • Where did you discover this totally fallacious "basic rule"? Qs in simple present can start with any word in the lexicon: "Where do you live?" "When is your birthday?" "Your name is Schlossblick, isn't it?" "How much is that doggy in the window?" "Bob's not ill, is he?" "Do you live here?" "Is 'antidisestablishmentarianism' the longest normal word in English?" "Your mother actually married your father? Why?"
    – user21497
    Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 8:54
  • I didn't say start but include - and I also mentioned this in the case of lack of other auxiliary verbs. Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 8:58
  • 2
    There's no structural difference between "Who keeps him going?" and "What keeps him going?" but using How would need do: "How does he keep going?"
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 9:00
  • "What smells funny?" "Which team leads the race?" Do you have a source for your rule? While do and auxiliary verbs are common in questions, there are many exceptions too. Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 9:07
  • 1
    I'm afraid I think this question is unsalvageable. I suggest specifying exactly what you are asking about. State the purported rule, examples which follow it and examples which you wouldn't use because of it. You could include some of the sentences from comments here in one set or the other. You also need to include register: slang or colloquialisms like "Says who" will never follow a "formal" rule. Currently your rule isn't very clear. (I think it's probably wrong, but it's not particularly easy to say at the moment.) Once you have a good question, flag any obsolete comments.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 9:27

3 Answers 3


The ‘rule’ with Wh-questions is a bit more complicated than that.

  1. If a fronted Wh-word represents the subject of the question, neither inversion nor Do-support is required.

    Who is the man with the shovel? <<< Bob is the man with the shovel.
    What keeps him going? <<< Whisky keeps him going.

  2. If a fronted Wh-word does not represent the subject of the question, then inversion—flipping the subject and the finite verb in the verb chain—is required.

    What is he digging? <<< He is digging a ditch.
    Why is he digging it? <<< He is digging it to earn enough money to buy a bottle of whisky.

  3. In Present-Day English, only auxiliaries and the verb BE tolerate inversion. If the finite verb is not one of these, then DO-support is required, to supply an auxiliary.

    What drinks he? <<< He drinks Jim Beam.

    This requires DO-support:
    What does he drink?

Rule 3 only started evolving some four hundred years ago, and there are still exceptions to it. For instance, it’s still possible to hear lexical have inverted without DO-support: “What have you in that bag?”

There are moreover questions in which the WH-word is not fronted: “You said what?!” or Bill Franke’s “Sez who?”

But those three ‘baby rules’ should suffice for common-or-garden-variety questions until your students are more knowledgeable.

marks an utterance as unacceptable


If who is the subject of the question, no auxiliary is needed.

  • Who helped you?

If there is a different subject, then the auxiliary is needed:

  • Who(m) did you help?

The same applies to what:

  • What keeps him going?

  • What does he keep?


You should consider that 'keeps' is acting as an auxiliary verb in this sentence and is being used to form the present progressive tense in place of the verb 'to be,' so "What keeps him going" has the correct structure for a progressive tense question. I can't think of any other examples of this kind of substitution in the progressive tense, but we can replace 'to be' in stative structures e.g., 'That sounds good.'

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