They were standing on the edge of a huge chessboard, behind the black chessmen, which were all taller than they were and carved from what looked like black stone. Facing them, way across the chamber, were the white pieces. Harry, Ron and Hermione shivered slightly –– the towering white chessmen had no faces.
"Now what do we do?" Harry whispered.
"It's obvious, isn't it?" said Ron. "We've got to play our way across the room."
Behind the white pieces they could see another door.
"How?" said Hermione nervously.
"I think," said Ron, "we're going to have to be chessmen."
He walked up to a black knight and put his hand out to touch the knight's horse. At once, the stone sprang to life. The horse pawed the ground and the knight turned his helmeted head to look down at Ron.
"Do we –– er –– have to join you to get across?"
The black knight nodded.
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

Is what the same as in What are those things on the table?, or does the clause have some other meanings? For example, what is not a pronoun but an adverb.

2 Answers 2


English 'anaphoric' words - words which 'stand for' other constituents of a sentence - are all called pronouns, but in fact there are two different categories:

  • words which act as placeholders for nominal expressions (he, she, it, what, which, who, this, that &c)
  • words which act as placeholders for adverbial expressions, and might better be called pro-adverbs (how, where, when, why, whither, &c)

But for adjectival expressions we have only the demonstrative such (now little used in this sense) and we have nothing for verbal expressions. Instead we use the pro-nouns and pro-adverbs in various combinations.

  • With adjectives we mostly use how+ADJ or what/which+NOUN as interrogatives/relatives and this/that/so/yay+ADJ or this/that+NOUN as demonstratives.

    How big you want that? ... About yay big.
    What color shirt was he wearing? ... That color.

  • With verbs we mostly use what/which (interrogative/relative) and this/that (demonstrative), in combination with the all-purpose verb DO.

    Whatcha doin? ... Whatchu see.
    What do we do? ... What we have to do.

You could make a case for thinking of DO here as a pro-verb and what as its obligatory pronominal object.

  • I read a words 'interrogative phrase' in CGEL (p.95) and it designates, i guess, your phrase, 'how big', what color shirt'.
    – Listenever
    Aug 12, 2013 at 13:05
  • 2
    @Listenever I thought I was just being whimsical, but it turns out that pro-verb is a recognized category. Aug 12, 2013 at 13:47

It's the usual what used to ask information about somebody/something.

What is your name?

What does he do?

What do we do, now?

What time is it?

In all those sentences, what is an interrogative pronoun.

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