Of course, asking ‘closed questions’ (questions which can only be answered in the positive, ‘yes’, or the negative, ‘no’) is not enough. Lawyers need information, and often lots of it. And for getting information, we need to use question words.

The most common question words, and what kind of information they are basically used to obtain, are:

· What..? – This is generally used to ask about – and clarify - things

- What is an exclusion clause?

- What does clause 12 say?

- When…? – This is used to ask about time.

- When are you signing the contract?

- When does the meeting start?

- Where…? – This is used to ask about the place or location of something or someone?

- Where is the contract?

- Where do I find the Definitions Section?

- Who…? – This is used to ask about people.

- Who is the senior partner in the firm?

- Who did you send the documents to?

- Which…? – This is used to ask about choices.

- Which is the most recent contract?

- Which would you prefer? [The short-term or the long-term contract]

- Why…? – This is used to ask about reasons and causes.

- Why is the meeting starting late?

- Why did the negotiations break down?

- How…? – This is used to ask about processes and ‘manner’ (for example, a way of doing something)

- How can I explain this clearly?

- How does the arbitration process work?

Of course, we know that the fundamental structure used when asking questions is:

Question Word(s) Auxiliary Subject Verb Rest (Q+A+S+V+R)

We can see this in practice in the example questions, above:


What is an exclusion clause?

Where do I find the Definitions Section?

Which is the most recent contract?

How does the arbitration process work?

Question words are necessary in order to obtain new or further information – which, as a lawyer, is essential.

Why did you sign the contract? – I signed it because I had no choice.

Why did you have no choice? – Because the other party threatened me.

How did he threaten you? – He held a gun to my head.

Each of the questions (and you can see the QASVR structure in each one) gives further information and leads to another question.


Sometimes the answer to a question is unclear and you want – and of course, need – to understand it. One way of asking for clarification of something from someone is:

Q Auxiliary Subject Verb

What do you mean?

The verb ‘to mean’ = to express or represent something, such as a verb or idea. The noun form of ‘to mean’ is ‘the meaning’. All words have a meaning – the purpose of a dictionary is to tell you what ‘the meaning’ of the word is.

Lawyer: Under English law, you have a duty to mitigate your losses.

Client: I don’t understand. What do you mean? [Or, ‘What does that mean?]

Lawyer: It means that you must act to try to reduce the amount of damages and loss you suffer because of the other party’s breach of contract.

For some reason, the use of the verb ‘to mean’ often seems to cause English students a problem. However, it is a simple and efficient way of asking someone to clarify something that you do not, or cannot, understand.


Look again at the question words at the start of this post and make sure you understand the type of information each question word is trying to obtain (asking about things, location, reasons, and so on). Then try to form accurate questions (using the QASVR structure) from the following information:

[Hint: Decide which question word is appropriate. Then try to work out which of the words in the sentences are the auxiliary (to be/to do/to have/modal verbs), subject, verb, etc. The answer key follows the exercises]


(Reason) The meeting is starting late.

Why is the meeting starting late.

1. (Time) – The goods will be delivered.

2. (Reason) – The government ratified the treaty.

3. (Process) – I can get a copy of the contract.

4. (Location) – The goods are being stored.

5. (Choice) – The best contract to sign.


1. When will the goods be delivered?

2. Why did the government ratify the treaty?

3. How can I get a copy of the contract?

4. Where are the goods being stored?

5. Which is the best contract to sign.

© Cambridge Legal English Academy 2021

12 views0 comments