Five Ws

For other uses, see W5 (disambiguation).

The Five Ws, Five Ws and one H, 5W1H, or the Six Ws are questions whose answers are considered basic in information-gathering or problem-solving. 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]

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

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 (excluding Scotland), the Five Ws are used in Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 lessons.[5]



A standard series of questions has been a way of formulating or analyzing rhetorical questions since classical antiquity.[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]

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]

In the 16th century, 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 U.S., 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]

Wikisource has original text related to this article:

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.

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]

Starting in the 2000s, the Five W's were sometimes misattributed to Kipling, especially in the management and quality literature,[23][24] and contrasted with the 5 Whys.[25]


In each of English and Latin, most of the interrogative words begin with the same sound, wh in English, "qu" in Latin. This is not a coincidence, as they both come 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. Spencer-Thomas, Owen. "Press release: getting the facts straight". (Press release). Retrieved 24 February 2012.
  3. 1 2 "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". Times Educational Supplement. 4 Sep 2008. Retrieved 10 Mar 2011.
  6. For more general discussion of the theory of circumstances, 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. JSTOR 4427142.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Robertson, D.W., Jr (1946). "A Note on the Classical Origin of "Circumstances" in the Medieval Confessional". Studies in Philology. 43 (1): 6–14. JSTOR 4172741.
  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.
  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. doi:10.1177/000271624221900110. JSTOR 1023893. Retrieved 2014-03-19.
  22. Griffin, Philip F. (1949). "The Correlation of English and Journalism". The English Journal. 38 (4): 189–194. doi:10.2307/806690. JSTOR 806690. Retrieved 2014-03-19.
  23. Simon Burtonshaw-Gunn, The Essential Management Toolbox, 2009, ISBN 0470687436, pp. 55, 68, 198
  24. e.g. in E. Kim and S. Helal, "Revisiting Human Activity Networks", in Sensor Systems and Software: Second International ICST Conference, Miami 2010, p. 223
  25. Richard Smith, et al., The Effective Change Manager's Handbook, 2014, p. 419
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