Japanese Wh-questions: どうして・なぜ・なんで, いつ, いくつ, いくら & どのくらい

Wh-question: どうして

In the last two lessons, you learned wh-questions with demonstratives: こそあど, e.g. どんなほんみますか (What kind of book(s) do you read)? However, there are still other types of question words, which are not related to demonstratives. In this lesson, you will complete the topic: wh-question.

Five Japanese Wh-questions not related to Demonstratives

Table of Contents
どうして, なぜ, and なんで: Why
いつ: When
いくつ・いくら: How Old… / How Many… / How Much…
どのくらい: How + Adjectives

Regardless of whether questions words are related to demonstratives, the basic concepts are the same. By paying attention to the function of particles and omissions of subjects, you can make natural interrogative sentences with question words. Let’s check how it works.

どうして, なぜ, and なんで: Why

どうして [あなた は / が] ほん べんきょうする(の / んですか)?
Adverb [Topic/Subject] Direct Object Verb
Why will [you] study Japanese?

The first question words are どうして, なぜ, and なんで. All of them are counterparts to “why” in English. However, the formality is different as shown below. You need to choose one of them depending on the situation.

Formal: なぜ
Neutral: どうして
Casual: なんで (only in speaking)

Since these question words are categorized into adverbs in Japanese grammar, it’s not necessarily the case that they are placed at the beginning. Note: when you ask reasons, it’s natural that you already have some contexts. That is to say, the question marker の is more suitable than か

ほんになぜす(の / んですか)?
Why will [you] move to Japan?
どうしてやまのぼる(の / んですか)?
Why do [you] climb mountains?
くもはなんでしろい(の / んですか)?
Why are clouds white?

なんで VS. なにで

The question word: なんで comes from the combination of 何 and the particle で. One of the functions of the particle で is to express reasons (causation). That’s why なんで can be a counterpart to “why.” Let’s see the breakdown below. *Note: なんで is sometimes written in kanji.

風邪かぜ学校がっこうを(やすむ / やすみます)。
[I will] be absent from school due to [I have a] cold.
なん学校がっこうやすむ(の / んですか)?
Why will [you] be absent from school?

As you learned, the question word 何 can be replaced with nouns. In the example, 風邪かぜ, which is the reason shown by the particle で, has been replaced. Thus, the literal meaning is “what reason,” but you can consider it as “why” in English. The point here is that since the particle で can express means and materials too, you can ask it by using the same form.

タクシー学校がっこうに(く / きます)。
[I will] go to school by taxi.
なに学校がっこうく(の / んですか)?
By what [means] will [you] go to school?
さいでジュースを(つくる / つくります)。
[I will] make juice by [using] vegetables.
なにでジュースをつくる(の / んですか)?
By using what [materials] will [you] make juice?

That’s a little confusing, isn’t it? For example, the last sentence: なにでジュースをつくるの? may be treated as “Why do you make juice?” and “By using what materials will you make juice?” Therefore, Japanese people distinguish them by using different pronunciations. That’s なんで vs. なにで.

なんで: Reasons (causation)
なにで: Means or Materials

You learned that 何 is always pronounced as なん if the letter after 何 is part of the Ta line (た ち つ て と), Da line (だ ぢ づ で ど), or Na line (な に ぬ ね の). Here is an exception.

いつ: When

たんじょう いつ (ですか)?
Topic / Subject Complement Question Marker
When is [your] birthday?

いつ is the question word for time and a counterpart to “when” in English. This is categorized into adverbial nouns in terms of grammar. Therefore, いつ can work as a subject, a complement and an adverb.

いつが結婚式けっこんしき(なの / なんですか)?
When is [your] wedding?
When is the next national holiday?
いつほんる(の / んですか)?
When will [you] come to Japan?

The particle から and まで can be used with いつ together like “from when” and “until when.”

いつからがふゆ(なの / なんですか)?
From when will the winter [start]?
いつまでふゆつづく(の / んですか)?
Until when will the winter continue?

If you’d like to ask approximate time, you need to attach ごろ to いつ. Some young people use  ぐらい instead of ごろ nowadays, though this is not grammatically correct. Please keep in mind that ぐらい should be used for amount.

いつごろ結婚式けっこんしき(なの / なんですか)?
About when is [your] wedding?
いつごろほんる(の / んですか)?
About when will [you] come to Japan?
いつごろまでふゆつづく(の / んですか)?
About until when will the winter continue?

Specific Time

As you learned, 何 can be replaced with nouns. The function is applicable for time as well. By utilizing that, you can ask a specific question like “what time is it now?”

いま5時ごじ(だ / です)。
It’s five o’clock now.
What time is it now?
Ten o’clock is good.
なんがいい(の / んですか)?
What time is good [for you]?

In this usage: time + counter, 何 is always pronounced as なん. Then, when time expressions work as supplementary information, you have to attach the particle に.

5時ごじきる / きます)。
[I will] get up at 5:00am.
なんきる(の / んですか)?
What time will [you] get up?
11じゅういちごろる / ます)。
[I will] go to bed around 11:00pm.
なんごろる(の / んですか)?
Around what time will [you] go to bed?

You can also use other time counters such as 何年なんねん, 何月なんがつ, 何日なんにち, 何分なんふん, and なんびょう.

いくつ・いくら: How Old… / How Many… / How Much…

[あなたは] (お)いくつ (ですか)?
[Topic / Subject] Adverb Question Marker 
How old are [you]?
[それは] (お)いくら (ですか)?
[Topic / Subject] Adverb Question Marker 
How much is [that]?

いくつ and いくら are the set phrases for age and price. If you attach お to them, you can ask questions in a more polite way.

おとうとは(お)いくつ(なの / なんですか)?
How old is [your] younger brother?
About how old is [your] mother?
How much is that tobacco?
(お)いくらぐらいかかる(の / んですか)?
About how much does [it] cost?

いくつ and いくら are also the counterparts to "how many" and "how much" in English.

パンは (お)いくつ う / いますか?
Topic / Subject Adverb Verb
How much bread will [you] buy?

The origin of いくつ comes from the way of counting: つ-method. By using this, you can ask how many generic objects there are. Regarding particles for objects, you have to choose it depending on verbs. However, it is also common to use objects as a topic like the above example.

アイスクリームはいくつ(べる / べますか)?
How much ice cream will [you] eat?
ケーキをいくつつくる(の / んですか)?
How many pieces of cake will [you] make?
こおりがいくつる(の / んですか)?
How much ice do [you] need?

One point you need to know is that いくつ can be used for only generic objects (つ)and general goods (). When you ask a number of things which require specific counters, you need to use the sentence pattern: “何 + counter.” 何 is a really versatile. You can even ask age and prices. Note: 何 + counter is always pronounced as なん. 

かさ何本なんほんぐらい(る / りますか)?
About how many umbrellas do [you] need?
くるま何台なんだいう(の / んですか)?
How many cars will [you] buy?
How old are [you]?
How much is this?

どのくらい: How + Adjectives

ほん どのくらい さむい(ですか)?
Topic / Subject Adverbial Noun Predicate
As for Japan, how cold is [it]?

どのくらい is the question word to ask degree. The usage is similar to どう which is to seek a description. どのくらい is generally used with words which have degree and can be translated as “how adjective…” You may sometime see どのぐらい, どれくらい, and どれぐらい instead of どのくらい. They all are interchangeable.

どのくらいねむい(の / んですか)?
How sleepy are [you]?
How spicy is [it]?
How far is it [to get] to Kyoto?
くるまはどのくらいたかい(の / んですか)?
How expensive are cars?

Here is another function of どのくらい. You can ask an approximate number. This has the same meaning as “何 + counter + くらい.”

ほんはどのぐらいむ(の / んですか)?
About how many books do [you] read?
ほん何冊なんさつぐらいむ(の / んですか)?
About how many books do [you] read?
いつもどのくらいる(の / んですか)?
About how long do [you] usually sleep?
いつもなんかんぐらいる(の / んですか)?
About how many hours do [you] usually sleep?

In this usage, かかる: to take (a resource, e.g. time or money) is often used. Be careful. When native speakers use this, subjects are often omitted.

どのくらい [おかねが](かかる / かかりますか)?
How much does it cost?
どのくらい [かんが](かかる / かかりますか)?
How long does it take?


  1. There’s not a big difference between question words related or not related to demonstratives.
  2. Question words categorized into adverbs such as “なぜ” and “いくつ” cannot be subjects or complements.
  3. One of the function of the particle に is to express specific time.

Great Job! You’ve completed Japanese wh-questions. Now, you can compose both open questions and closed questions. Interrogative sentences are a basis in conversation. Thus, we recommend that you memorize all of the question words here. Next, you will learn negative questions with the response.