Who Was Looking for Whom?
Posted by Neal on November 7, 2006
At about suppertime last night, the phone rang. The caller ID showed it was Doug’s friend James calling. I picked up the phone, preparing to tell James that Doug couldn’t play because he was about to have supper. “Hello?”
“Hi, Neal, it’s Rita.” Oh, not James. James’s mom. “Can you tell James it’s time to come home?”
“No, I can’t,” I told her, “because he’s not here.”
So Rita signed off to go find James and I went back to getting Doug and Adam’s supper ready. My wife, who had heard my half of the conversation from the next room, asked:
Who was looking for whom?
Yeah, that’s right, whom. She knows how to use the word correctly, and isn’t afraid to do so. But what I found more interesting about her question was that it had two wh- words, and yet I was able to answer with just, “Rita was looking for James.”
So what? you ask. Well, usually multiple-wh interrogatives (as they’re known) expect a pair-list answer. In this case, a pair-list answer would be a list of seeker/sought pairs, such as, “Rita was looking for James; John was looking for Marsha; and Sue was looking for his pa.”
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But Neal, in the context it was obvious that your wife was expecting just a single-pair answer. Clearly, these questions can be answered with a single pair or a pair list, just depending on the context.” OK, then, what about this often-cited example (originally due to one Krystyna Wachowicz, I believe), for which real-world knowledge would seem to point toward a single-pair answer?
Who killed Robert Kennedy when?
For most English speakers, this question doesn’t go over so well. (It doesn’t for me. Does it for you?) It seems to imply that RFK was killed on multiple occasions. I find myself imagining SF stories with characters hopping among alternate timelines that differ in when and where (and even whether) RFK was killed. If I wanted to ask this question with an expectation of a single-pair answer, I’d have to say something like:
Who killed Robert Kennedy, and when (did they do it)?
So if a single-pair context is not enough to make the RFK sentence felicitous, why would it work for Who was looking for whom??
There is a known exception to the rule that multiple-wh questions expect pair-list answers: disjunctive resolution contexts. That is, if you already know the identity of the participants in the event you’re asking about, and you just need to know which participant filled which role. For example…
Rico went a bit too far,
Tony sailed across the bar,
And then the punches flew and chairs were smashed in two.
There was blood and a single gun shot
But just who shot who?
(Barry Manilow, “Copacabana”)
The only answer needed is either “Rico shot Tony” or “Tony shot Rico”. (Hey, I’m not gonna spoil it!) But when my wife asked who was looking for whom, it wasn’t a case of wondering whether Rita was looking for James or vice versa, so I’m still looking for an explanation.
In fact, this isn’t the first multiple-wh question I’ve heard recently that expected a single-pair answer. There was also this one that I heard on the BBC World Service on October 2, 2006, when the correspondent asked someone who had become addicted to online gambling:
How much did you lose in what length of time?
Again, it’s only the context that tells you a single-pair answer is appropriate, but why doesn’t the question have to be phrased:
How much did you lose, and in what length of time (did you lose it)?