'When did you last see him?'

In the above sentence, is "when" an adverb? If so, what word is it modifying?


"When" is an adverb of time, referring to the verb "see" - In other words, modifies it.

In your example, it's an interrogative adverb, meaning "at what time".


McCawley, in TSPE, offers a theory of adverbs in which adverbs differ in type according to the category of the phrase they modify. In his theory, time adverbs, like "when" in your example, are V'-modifying adverbs, which can sometimes be promoted to S-modifying adverbs. (With the possible exception of degree adverbs, clausal adverbs don't modify words, but rather phrases.)

Without "when", your example "When did you last see him?" has the structure:

[S you [V' did [V' last see him] ] ]

Since "when" queries the time of "did", I suppose it would modify the V' with head "did", which is the topmost V':

[S you [V' [V' did [V' last see him] ] when ] ]

  • +1 from me, though I have a feeling, from the way the question is worded, that you may have to add some explanations of the linguistic terminology for the asker to be able to follow. Jul 26 '15 at 23:42

When an adverb?

In dictionaries question words are traditionally labelled as adverbs. I find it more practical to implement the traditional list of word classes with some additional terms just for private use. For me "who, what, why, when etc" are question words and I don't have to rack my brains what "when" modifies. Actually it modifies nothing. Its function is to introduce a question and it asks after an indication of time in a sentence of statement. With the lop-sided label adverb one gets on a wrong track in my view.

  • Question words - going by this explanation, "what" sounds like another. It functions as a 'pronoun'. Could we say, for instance, it doesn't actually perform that function, despite its reference to a noun (that which is being asked about)?
    – Sankarane
    Jul 27 '15 at 9:55
  • It's up to you which grammar terms you use. For various reasons I have always found the term question word practical, simple, and useful and I still use it. The box pronouns in grammars is too large a box with too many various things so that it is almost impossible to get things into a clear arrangement.
    – rogermue
    Jul 27 '15 at 15:30
  • Okay, but my question has not been addressed...!
    – Sankarane
    Jul 27 '15 at 15:40

Sometimes with interrogatory sentences, the best thing to do is rearrange it into something declaratory. In this way, it is often easier to understand the sentence structure.

You did last see him when.

In this way, it is much easier to see that when is an adverb modifying "see". It's also easier to make out the subject and other pieces of sentence structure.

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