28 Asking Who and What

  You can also read this chapter in French.


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 DL komu is less common in speech, but some style guides prefer it in writing. You can safely ignore it.

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?

To je Ana. That’s Ana. (Ana N)

Tko je to? Who’s that?

For the accusative case (contrasted with the question about the subject in N):

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

Koga Goran čeka? Who is Goran waiting for? (A)

Tko čeka Anu? Who is waiting for Ana? (N)

English questions could also be written with whom (whom is Goran... ) – that’s recommended by many use guides, but increasingly rare in 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.® Also, in the Zagreb region, kaj is used colloquially.

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? (što = A)

Ivan se bojibojati se mraka. Ivan is afraid of dark. (mraka = G)

Čega se bojibojati se Ivan? What is Ivan afraid of? (čega = G)

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. (A)

Koga Goran čeka? Who is Goran waiting for?

Anu. Ana. (A)

Čega se bojibojati se Ivan? What is Ivan afraid of?

Mraka. Dark. (G)

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. {m/mixed} (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?

Tko je to bio? Who was that?

For things:

Što je to bilo? What was that?

Šta je to bilo? (the same meaning, but colloquial) ®

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

Another example: to ask about which body part hurts, you have to use što as the subject, since body parts are subjects in such sentences, while the person feeling the pain is grammatically the object (in A). Consequently, in questions, past forms must be neuter singular, and in answers the body part is in N:

Što te boli? lit. ‘What hurts you?’ = Where does it hurt you?

Zub. A tooth.

Što je boljelo Anu? lit. ‘What did hurt Ana?’ = Where did it hurt Ana?

Ruka. Hand/arm.

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 59 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 the all-purpose demonstrative to that after question words, usually before the verb, 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?

Šta to radiš? (the same meaning, but colloquial) ®

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

Kome to pišešpisati? Who are you writing to? (I see you’re typing a message)

Observe that between the question words and to second-position words may appear. This removes the ambiguity of the present tense, as this question is also about someone’s job, depending on the context:

Što radiš? What are you doing? / What do you do?

Šta radiš? (the same meaning, but colloquial) ®

Such to is optional, of course, but makes the question really specific. Even adding sad(a) now wouldn’t remove the ambiguity, since sad(a) can stretch to days, weeks, months – depending on the context.

If you are puzzled what to is in such questions, it behaves rather as an adverb or particle, and never changes its form.

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 pišempisati?  ▶  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 with another verb in inf:

Što sam trebala raditi? What should I have been doing? {f}


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

The verb dešavati («) se² is considered standard in Serbia and most of Bosnia.

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