I know that "Who with?", "Who for?", "Who by?", "Who from?", "Who to?", and other "Who + preposition" sentences are colloquially very common as standalone questions (following the preposition stranded word order of something like "I don't know who I got it from.") My question is: why can't I find any information about what-questions with this word order? "I don't know what to eat it with" is also a natural and common sentence for the vast majority of native speakers, so I'd think that "What with?" as a standalone question (or "what" followed by any other preposition) would be very common as well.

As a native English speaker, I actually haven't heard either of those in real life (only ever "For/with/by/from/to who(m)?" and "For/with/by/from/to what?") I learned from browsing forums about the English language that "who + preposition" as a standalone question is also a common word order in colloquial English, but what about "what + preposition?" Have you ever heard, seen, or used "What with?/What by?/What for?/What from?/What to?" or is that word order usually limited to who-questions? (If so, why?)

Edit: I'm aware that "What with" and "What for" also have other idiomatic meanings that are separate from the use cases that I am asking about.

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    In a BBC TV trailer is a remark that something smells. "What of?" asks another. Commented Apr 29 at 21:05
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    In There's a Hole in my Bucket is the line "With what shall I mend it?" It would normal to ask "What with?" in casual speech. Commented Apr 29 at 21:08
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    "What with?", "What by?" and "What for?" are common. But it would be "From what?" and "To what?", I think. Quite why it's that order for those two I shall leave to others to explain.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Apr 29 at 21:13
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    ...or "Where from?" and "Where to", depending on context. Commented Apr 29 at 21:15
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    As I always find myself writing, it's possible to come up with theoretical sentences, but much better to know specific contexts and find a sentence that fits that context. "What for?" often means "for what purpose?" i.e. "why?" but it's common especially to express doubt as to the reason. "What with?" is certainly common: "Open that bottle!" "What with?" "What by/from/to" are less common, because for directions you'd probably say "From where?" or "To where?" or just "Where?" Not sure which sense of "by" you're talking about - "How?" would be better if you're asking for a means/method.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 29 at 21:39

1 Answer 1


… do you also say "what with/what for/what by/what from?"

Colloquially, all are possible and common:

A: “Open the door!”— B: “What with? We have no key.”

A: “I need a key” – B: “What for?” (= Why? or for what purpose, or for which lock.)

A: “His body was torn to pieces. It was obvious that he had been killed.” -- B: “What by?” (by what creature/thing had he been killed.)

A: “All we need to make a boat.” – B: “What from? There is no wood on the island.”

The usual form is (i) preposition + (ii) nominal but the inverted form remains as a vestige of “herewith, therewith, and wherewith, etc.,” that are common in Germanic languages.

  • I'd not expect "What from?" after "It's easy to distinguish,' but it feels better in most cases ("She's been suffering a long time" / "I made a replica of the Golden Hind last year" / ...). It's possibly a register thing. // I'd say "What by?" is less common; "He was astounded/nonplussed." ... "What by?" again sounds incongruous. Commented Apr 30 at 9:43
  • There is always an implied embedded phrase. He was astounded. Response: What [was he astounded] by? With the embedded implied bit it just don't work. [don't: said on purpose by me]
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 30 at 13:23

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