Why do we say, "Who is that man? What does he want", but, "Who is that man? Why is he looking at us". If the second is okay, which I am sure it is, why can't we say, "Who is that man? What is he wanting from us?".


  • 2
    Note that you could say "What is he wanting?", it's just that, well, no one does. – Dan Bron Sep 18 '14 at 18:14
  • @DanBron Take a look at Indian English. It is the sort of thing I can hear being said in an Indian accent. I think they make more use of the present continuous than we do. – WS2 Sep 18 '14 at 20:17
  • @WS2 I am having a doubt... – M.M Sep 19 '14 at 1:40

The construction employed in the question is determined by the construction employed in the declarative sentence - the 'answer' you are looking for.

Look is an activity verb, and usually takes the progressive construction in reporting a present action; in a question, subject/auxiliary inversion operates with the existing auxiliary BE:

That man is looking at us. → Why is the man looking at us?

A simple present, That man looks at us, would be unusual, an 'historical present' which ordinarily occurs only in literary or news-reporting contexts.

Want is a stative verb. Such verbs are not usually cast in the progressive, but in the simple present; since there is no auxiliary, this requires the 'dummy' auxiliary DO for subject/auxiliary inversion in a question:

That man wants something. → What does that man want?

This does not mean that they may not be cast in the progressive; but when this occurs it usually signals either a different sense or an unusual context which calls for 'recategorization' of the verb.

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