We ask about playing football with this sentence:

a: What are you doing?
b: I am playing football.

but when we want to ask about languages that are spoken or sports being played, we use these sentences:

a: What languages are those people speaking?
b: Those people are speaking English and Arabic

a: What sorts of sports are the children playing?
b: The children are playing different sorts of sports.

The thing which I don’t understand is: when do we follow what with a noun as in the latter two examples? (I feel something is missing when I omit “languages” and “sorts”.)

  • Related: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/13465/… Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 13:15
  • The groupings suggested by your bolding are inconsistent. The fronted +wh phrases are in brackets in the following: "[What] are you doing?", "[What languages] are those people speaking?", and "[What sorts of sports] are the children playing?"
    – user230
    Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 5:53

3 Answers 3


The difference you're asking about seems to be about being specific. In your original question What are you doing?implies no knowledge of the action the person is doing. If, for example, you know the person is playing sport but you don't know which one, you would follow What with a noun: e.g. What sport are you playing?

In your other examples, you are being more specific with your questions since you have more information about what is happening.

What languages are those people speaking? allows the listener to understand exactly what you're asking.

Consider the difference between a very open question:

What are you thinking about?

versus something much more specific:

What course are you thinking about studying?

In my opinion, it's a question of "How will my question be interpreted? If there is good context, you probably don't need to qualify "what" with a noun. In the absence of context, you should probably use a noun in order to be more specific.


You specify additional information in a question when you think it might be unclear without it.

It is perfectly valid to ask: "What are you speaking?" Most English speakers would understand that to mean that you want to know the language. I suppose it would not be shocking if someone replied, "The soliloquy from the third act of Shakespeare's Macbeth". But that would be unlikely, as if we expected an answer other than a language, we would more likely ask, "What are you saying?"

Your second example is a more useful one. You could ask, "What are the children playing?" There are things that children could play other than sports, so someone might very reasonably answer, "They are playing Monopoly" or "They are playing that they are arctic explorers". But if you say, "What sports are the children playing?", now we know that those answers are not what you are looking for, you want to know whether they are playing football or baseball or tennis or whatever.

The issue is not that some categories of things you might ask about require additional words and others do not, but rather that in some contexts, you must add additional words to make clear what sort of answer you are looking for, while in other context it is obvious without you having to say. In other contexts still your question may be intended to be so general that almost anything would be a valid response. That gets back to your first example. If you ask, "What are you doing?" the answer could be the physical action that the person is performing at this exact moment, like "I'm sitting in this chair", or it could be some larger plan that the person has, like "I'm trying to get a promotion" or "I'm planning my divorce".


I will clarify your doubt by giving small example
Which is used when you know about the facts/information that you are talking about..
Example: if you have 10 different color boxes in front you and you are familiar with all the colors. This time while asking a question to your friend.. you have to ask like this
Which color box do you like?
*Which are the colour boxes you like?

Example 2: next scenario you don't have any color boxes and you don't no what color your friend like...
this time you have to like this
what color do you like?
what are the colors you like?

correct me if I'm wrong

  • Please check the grammar of your examples. In your second version of each, you use 'are' and then the auxiliary 'do', the latter not being necessary in a subordinate clause. Which colour boxes do you like? or Which are the colour boxes you like?
    – JMB
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 13:20
  • @Praveen:your examples are as Damkerng`s related link ell.stackexchange.com/questions/13465/.But what I really wanted to know is just JMB comment because I got specific with my exambles 1 and 2
    – kathrine
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 13:28
  • @kathrine : it was coincident.. I haven't seen that link before.. i just tried to give my answer in my own way
    – Praveen
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 13:30
  • @Praveen:Ok.Its not a problem since I cant post the link,anyway thanks for your comment,I noticed about the exact using of what.
    – kathrine
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 13:37

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