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Five Ws

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Five Ws

The Five Ws, Five Ws and one H, or the Six Ws are questions whose answers are considered basic in information-gathering. They are often mentioned in journalism (cf. news style), research, and police investigations.[1] They constitute a formula for getting the complete story on a subject.[2] According to the principle of the Five Ws, a report can only be considered complete if it answers these questions starting with an interrogative word:[3]

  • Who did that?
  • What happened?
  • Where did it take place?
  • When did it take place?
  • Why did that happen?

Some authors add a sixth question, “how”, to the list, though "how" can also be covered by "what", "when", or "where":[3]

  • How did it happen?

Each question should have a factual answer — facts necessary to include for a report to be considered complete.[4] Importantly, none of these questions can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no".

In the United Kingdom, the Five Ws are used in Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 lessons.[5]


  • History 1
    • Rhetoric 1.1
  • Etymology 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4



This section focuses on the history of the series of questions as a way of formulating or analyzing rhetorical questions, and not the theory of circumstances in general.[6]

The rhetor Hermagoras of Temnos, as quoted in pseudo-Augustine's De Rhetorica[7] defined seven "circumstances" (μόρια περιστάσεως 'elements of circumstance')[8] as the loci of an issue:

Quis, quid, quando, ubi, cur, quem ad modum, quibus adminiculis.[9][10]
(Who, what, when, where, why, in what way, by what means)

Cicero had a similar concept of circumstances, but though Thomas Aquinas attributes the questions to Cicero, they do not appear in his writings. Similarly, Quintilian discussed loci argumentorum, but did not put them in the form of questions.[9]

Victorinus explained Cicero's system of circumstances by putting them into correspondence with Hermagoras's questions:[9]

quis=persona; quid=factum; cur=causa; ubi=locus; quando=tempus; quemadmodum = modus; quib/adminiculis=facultas

Julius Victor also lists circumstances as questions.[9]

Boethius "made the seven circumstances fundamental to the arts of prosecution and defense":

Quis, quid, cur, quomodo, ubi, quando, quibus auxiliis.[9]
(Who, what, why, how, where, when, with what)

The question form was taken up again in the 12th century by Thierry de Chartres and John of Salisbury.[9]

To administer suitable penance to sinners, the 21st canon of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) enjoined confessors to investigate both sins and the circumstances of the sins. The question form was popular for guiding confessors, and it appeared in several different forms:[11]

Quis, quid, ubi, per quos, quoties, cur, quomodo, quando.[12]
Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando.[13]
Quis, quid, ubi, cum quo, quotiens, cur, quomodo, quando.[14]
Quid, quis, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando.[15]
Quid, ubi, quare, quantum, conditio, quomodo, quando: adiuncto quoties.[16]

The method of questions was also used for the systematic exegesis of a text.[17]

Later, Thomas Wilson wrote in English verse:

Who, what, and where, by what helpe, and by whose:
Why, how, and when, doe many things disclose.[18]

In the 19th century US, Prof. William Cleaver Wilkinson popularized the "Three Ws" – What? Why? What of it? – as a method of Bible study in the 1880s, though he did not claim originality. This became the "Five Ws", though the application was rather different from that in journalism:

"What? Why? What of it?" is a plan of study of alliterative methods for the teacher emphasized by Professor W.C. Wilkinson not as original with himself but as of venerable authority. "It is, in fact," he says, "an almost immemorial orator's analysis. First the facts, next the proof of the facts, then the consequences of the facts. This analysis has often been expanded into one known as "The Five Ws:" "When? Where? Who? What? Why?" Hereby attention is called, in the study of any lesson: to the date of its incidents; to their place or locality; to the person speaking or spoken to, or to the persons introduced, in the narrative; to the incidents or statements of the text; and, finally, to the applications and uses of the lesson teachings.[19]

The "Five Ws" (and one H) were memorialized by Rudyard Kipling in his "Just So Stories" (1902), in which a poem accompanying the tale of "The Elephant's Child" opens with:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

This is why the "Five Ws and One H" problem solving method is also called as the "Kipling Method", which helps to explore the problems by challenging them with these questions.

By 1917, the "Five Ws" were being taught in high-school journalism classes,[20] and by 1940, the tendency of journalists to address all of the "Five Ws" within the lead paragraph of an article was being characterized as old-fashioned and fallacious:

The old-fashioned lead of the five Ws and the H, crystallized largely by Pulitzer's "new journalism" and sanctified by the schools, is widely giving way to the much more supple and interesting feature lead, even on straight news stories.[21]
All of you know about — and I hope all of you admit the fallacy of — the doctrine of the five Ws in the first sentence of the newspaper story.[22]


It is not a coincidence that both in English and in Latin, most of the interrogative words begin with the same sounds, as they derive from the Proto-Indo-European root kwo-, reflected in Proto-Germanic as χwa- or khwa- and in Latin as qu-.

See also


  1. ^ "Deconstructing Web Pages of Cyberspace" (PDF). MediaSmarts. Retrieved December 4, 2012. 
  2. ^  
  3. ^ a b "The Five Ws of Online Help". by Geoff Hart, TECHWR-L. Retrieved April 30, 2012. 
  4. ^ "Five More Ws for Good Journalism". Copy Editing, InlandPress. Retrieved September 12, 2008. 
  5. ^ "The Five Ws of Drama".  
  6. ^ For which, see e.g. Rita Copeland, Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages: Academic Traditions and Vernacular Texts, 1995. ISBN 0-521-48365-4, p. 66ff as well as Robertson
  7. ^ Though attributed to Augustine of Hippo, modern scholarship considers the authorship doubtful, and calls him pseudo-Augustine: Edwin Carawan, "What the Laws have Prejudged: Παραγραφή and Early Issue Theory" in Cecil W. Wooten, George Alexander Kennedy, eds., The orator in action and theory in Greece and Rome, 2001. ISBN 90-04-12213-3, p. 36.
  8. ^ Vollgraff, W. (1948). "Observations sur le sixieme discours d'Antiphon". Mnemosyne. 4th ser. 1 (4): 257–270.  
  9. ^ a b c d e f Robertson, D.W., Jr (1946). "A Note on the Classical Origin of "Circumstances" in the Medieval Confessional". Studies in Philology 43 (1): 6–14.  
  10. ^ Robertson, quoting Halm's edition of De rhetorica; Hermagoras's original does not survive
  11. ^ Citations below taken from Robertson and not independently checked.
  12. ^ Mansi, Concilium Trevirense Provinciale (1227), Mansi, Concilia, XXIII, c. 29.
  13. ^ Constitutions of Alexander de Stavenby (1237) Wilkins, I:645; also quoted in Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica I-II, 7, 3.
  14. ^ Robert de Sorbon, De Confessione, MBP XXV:354
  15. ^ Peter Quinel, Summula, Wilkins, II:165
  16. ^ S. Petrus Coelestinus, Opuscula, MBP XXV:828
  17. ^ Richard N. Soulen, R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism, (Louisville, 2001, ISBN 0-664-22314-1) s.v. Locus, p. 107; Hartmut Schröder, Subject-Oriented Texts, p. 176ff
  18. ^ Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique Book I. full text
  19. ^ Henry Clay Trumbull, Teaching and Teachers, Philadelphia, 1888, p. 120 text at Google Books
  20. ^ Leon Nelson Flint, Newspaper Writing in High Schools, Containing an Outline for the Use of Teachers, University of Kansas, 1917, p. 47 at Google Books
  21. ^ Mott, Frank Luther (1942). "Trends in Newspaper Content". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 219: 60–65.  
  22. ^ Griffin, Philip F. (1949). "The Correlation of English and Journalism". The English Journal 38 (4): 189–194.  
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