I know Subject-Verb inversion is the format to form a question.

When we start a question with 'What',

What it means? -improper
What does it mean? -proper

But then, if we start the question with 'Who', where is the subject? Is 'Who' subject?

Who lives there? -looks much better than
Who does live there?

I would appreciate Native speakers' help in understanding Subject-Verb inversion.

  • Have you considered that mean as used is a transitive verb, and live as used is an intransitive verb?
    – user3169
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 4:37
  • 2
    Does it affect the question? If yes, how?
    – Rucheer M
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 4:40
  • In the first question, what isn't the subject; it's the object.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 20:55

3 Answers 3


The easiest way to understand this problem is to make an in situ question. For an in situ question we don't move the wh- word to the front of the sentence. We leave it in the same place it would be in a normal sentence:

  • You gave it to who?
  • You did what?
  • You went there when?
  • You did it how?
  • Who ate it?

In these in situ questions we do not need any subject auxiliary inversion. Notice also that the question words there are in the same position in those sentences as they will be in the answers:

  • I gave it to Bob.
  • I did this.
  • I went there yesterday.
  • I did it like this.
  • Bob ate it.

Now if we make a normal question notice that the wh- word moves to the front of the sentence and we need subject auxiliary inversion:

  • Who did you gave it to?
  • What did you do?
  • When did you go there?
  • How did you do it?

I only did the first four questions above. Notice that in the fifth example, the in situ question was:

  • Who ate it?

and the answer was:

  • Bob ate it.

Now in this in situ question, the wh- word is already at the front of the sentence, because the thing/person we are asking about is the subject of the verb ate. Because we do not need to move the wh- word, we do not need to use subject auxiliary inversion here. The normal question and the in situ question are the same. It does not matter if the wh- word is who or what or which or whose. If the wh- word does not need to move because it is already at the front of the sentence, then we do not need subject auxilairy inversion.

  • Who ate it?
  • What happened?
  • Which person said that?
  • Whose girlfriend kissed you?

We can see that these words were already at the front of the sentence when we see the answers:

  • Bob ate it.
  • This happened.
  • That person said it.
  • Bob's girlfriend kissed me.

The Original Poster's question

Who lives there?

In this sentence, the word who is the subject of lives. We do not need to move it to the front to make the question. Notice that in the answer, the name of the person comes in the same place as the wh- word:

  • Bob lives there.

Because the question word is already at the front of the sentence, we do not need subject auxiliary inversion.

Hope this is helpful!


The difference, as another commenter said, is whether the question word ("what", "who") is also the subject of the sentence, for example:

Who lives here?

In that sentence, "who" is the subject, and it stands for some person, as in the answer "Jack lives here." So "who" gets replaced by "Jack". But in this sentence:

Who do you know here?

the subject is 'you' - you are someone who may know other people here. Then you need the auxiliary verb "do".

It's the same with 'what':

What lives in the river?

"What" is the subject of the sentence. The answer might be "Fish live in the river", so "what" gets replaced with "fish". However, in the sentence:

What does this mean?

The subject is 'this'. Note that this is very close to the way you would make a question like "does this mean anything?".

When you want to use a question word in a sentence that's not a question, then the auxiliary verbs are dropped:

  • Tell me what this means, not "tell me what does this mean"
  • Tell me who you know here, not "tell me who do you know here"
  • Tell me what lives in the river (no change, there was no auxiliary verb)
  • Tell me who lives here (no change, there was no auxiliary verb)

In questions of the type

  • Who are you?

  • Who goes there?

with who in subject case or nominative there is no inversion nor use of to do. Who is the subject. It is a special type of question.

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