28 Asking Who and What

Let’s learn how to make simple questions like who is driving? or what do you read? I’ve explained some simple questions already, but this will explain it deeper.

English has two question words (who and what). Croatian has essentially the same two words, however they change in cases. Here are forms for the Croatian equivalent of who:

tko  ▶  kog(a)  ▶  kom(e)  ▶ 

The final a in koga and e in kome can be dropped, but the longer versions are used quite often. Colloquially, especially in certain regions, tko is simplified to just ko  ▶ 

The question-words are placed to the first position and must be put into the exact case, for instance:

Ivan je vozio. Ivan was driving (Ivan N)

Tko je vozio?  ▶  Who was driving?

For the accusative case:

Goran čeka Anu. Goran is waiting for Ana. (Anu A)

Koga Goran čeka? Who is Goran waiting for?

English questions could also be written with whom (whom is Goran... ) – that’s recommended by many use guides, but increasingly rare in the real life. You could think about whom as an almost extinct object case form of who, corresponding to Croatian A and DL.

Examples for the DL case:

Ana je pisala Ivanu. Ana was writing to Ivan. (Ivanu DL)

Kome je Ana pisala? Who was Ana writing to?

Knjiga pripada Ani. The book belongs to Ana. (Ani DL)

Kome pripada knjiga? Who does the book belong to?

There’s no special placement of verbs or any other words in Croatian questions, except that the question word must be at the first position.

If you are asking about something that’s obviously not a person, you would use another question word (I’ve already introduced its nominative form):

što  ▶  čemu  ▶  čega  ▶ 

As said before, in many regions, šta  ▶  is used colloquially instead of što

Pay attention how with tko, A = G, while što has A = N (as with neuter nouns and adjectives in neuter gender!)

Ana je pisala pismo. Ana was writing a letter. (pismo A)

Što je Ana pisala? What was Ana writing?

Ivan se boji visine. Ivan is afraid of height. (visine G)

Čega se boji Ivan? What is Ivan afraid of?

When answering such questions, you can answer with just one word, but in the right case:

Kome je Ana pisala? Who was Ana writing to?

Ivanu. To Ivan. (DL)

Što je Ana pisala? What was Ana writing?

Pismo. A letter.

It’s possible to ask questions about any "slot" in a sentence, normally occupied by a noun, including one after prepositions. Then the preposition will be before the question word (like in a kind of ultra-formal English):

Bili smo kod Ane. We were at Ana’s house/home. (kod¨ + G)

Kod koga smo bili?

Kod Ane. At Ana’s house/home.

Now, you have to answer with the right preposition and the noun in the right case!

Since tko and što can be used as subjects in questions, what forms of verbs and other words do we have to use with them? It turns out to be quite simple and like in English (and unlike in Spanish, where quiénes is used to ask about plural):

tko = masculine sing., 3rd person
što = neuter sing., 3rd person

Therefore, even if you are asking about someone who is obviously female, or if the answer is obviously more than one person, you should always set up the question in the masculine gender, singular:

Tko je bio ovdje? Who was here?

Tko je gladan? Who is hungry?

For things:

Što je to bilo? What was that?

That’s very similar to English, where you ask in singular even if it’s obvious the answer will be more than one person.

The word što is a pronoun, it cannot be attached to a noun. You cannot use it to ask e.g. What movie are you watching?. For such purposes, Croatian uses another word, adjective koji, explained in 36 Whose, What Thing and What Like.

The question-word što is used to ask for additional information about what someone is, e.g. what profession:

Što je Ivan? What is Ivan?

— Liječnik. Doctor.

What about animals? For general animals, you should use što, but for animals you’re familiar with (e.g. pets) tko is often used.

Recall that što is used for generic questions where we know the subject, but not the verb:

(Ana spava. Ana is sleeping.)

Što Ana radi?  ▶  What is Ana doing? (lit. ‘working’)

Spava. She’s sleeping.

For general questions what is/was going on – nothing is known – the following two verbs are used (the first one is a bit colloquial):

dešavati («) se²
događati («) se²  

    go on, happen

For example:

Što se događa ovdje?  S▶   W▶  What is going on here?

Since Croatian has only one present tense, it’s very common to add to after question words in such questions, to stress that you’re asking something present, ongoing right now, what or who can be seen:

Što to Ana radi? What is Ana doing? (right now)

Što to radiš? What are you doing?

Što se to događa? What is going on? (right now)

Tko je to? Who’s that?

Observe that between the question words and to second-position words may appear.

(Something possibly interesting: the to in š-to, not appearing in other cases, comes historically from that use – to was so much used after the question word that it eventually fused with it, and lost its meaning. Later the word to was re-introduced. An older version of the question word, ča, is still used in some regions of Croatia. Russian, a not-so-distant relative of Croatian, still spells the question word что – which is just čto, but in Russian Cyrillic script. However, it’s pronounced što, the same as in Croatian!)

Finally, it’s possible to ask questions what should be, or what should you do, that is, ask for advice or an opinion. There’s a special construction where da is put right after the question-word:

Što da pišem?  ▶  What should I write?

Koga da čekamo? Who should we wait for?

Što da radim? What should I do?

(Google™ for što da radim or šta da radim and you’ll see it’s a very frequent expression.)

The main verb should be in the present tense, as in other questions of this type (gdje da..., kada da... etc.):

Kamo da idemo? Where should we go?

The verbs must be in the present tense to use such form. If you are asking about what should have been, use the verb trebati in the past tense:

Što sam trebao raditi? What should I have been doing?

® The variants ko and šta are considered standard in Bosnia and Serbia. In Serbia, and especially Bosnia, što is often used with meaning why.

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5 Easy Croatian: 28 Asking Who and What Let’s learn how to make simple questions like who is driving? or what do you read? I’ve explained some simple questions already, but this ...

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