Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

What Do You Do with What and Who?

Posted by Neal on July 9, 2004

Last week, there was a story in the Metro section of the Columbus Dispatch about digging up and reburying remains from an old cemetery. It was a forgotten cemetery, rediscovered when construction began for an office complex, and now that the relocation is underway, the property owner “plans to use charts she’s drawn each day to map out in detail who and what were found.”

When I read that sentence, something made me stop. After a few seconds, I figured out what it was. It was the plural were, instead of a singular was. I had never realized this about my own internal grammar, but it seems there’s a difference between coordinated subjects in a declarative sentence and coordinated subjects in a wh-question, summed up below:

  1. *A man’s body and a rosary was found.
  2. A man’s body and a rosary were found.
  3. Who and what was found?
  4. *Who and what were found?

At first, I thought the problem was that who and what just about always take a singular verb, even if we know we’re talking about more than one who or more than one what. For example, even if I tell you, “A lot of people are coming to my party,” it would sound pretty strange for you to ask, “Really? Who are coming?” And even if I tell you that there were a lot of items on the breakfast buffet, you wouldn’t ask, “What were there?” You’d say “What was there?” The only exception that I can think of is the case where the verb is a form of be, and after it is a plural noun phrase, as in the examples below:

  1. Who are these people?
  2. Who were they?
  3. What are a few of your favorite things?
  4. What were the causes of the Spanish-American War?

But even though who and what can’t ordinarily take a plural verb, it seems like the and-coordination of who and what should trigger plural agreement on the verb, just like the coordination of A man’s body and a rosary does. But why does it feel so wrong to me, while plural verbs with ordinary subjects, as in (2), are no problem? My gut feeling is that Who and what was found? is to be read as Who was found and what was found?, with the singular verb agreeing with each wh word individually. But if I’m allowed to do that kind of interpretation on a wh question, why can’t I do it with the statement*A man’s body and a rosary was found ?

Time for some Google corpus linguistics, to see how others handle who and what,or for that matter what and who, as a subject. I searched for each of these strings, excluding the phrases “what’s what” and “who’s who” to filter out a lot of irrelevant hits. In addition to who and what or what and who being the subject of the sentence, the sentences were not allowed to be in the exception case mentioned above, with be as the verb, followed by a noun phrase. I wanted to be sure that it was the and-coordination that was responsible for any plural verbs, not the plurality of a following noun phrase. For each string (who and what, what and who), the first 20 hits meeting these requirements were recorded. Here are the results:

  • who and what
    • singular: 70%
    • plural: 30%
  • what and who
    • singular: 90%
    • plural: 10%

So it looks like I’m not alone in my feeling about the singular agreement with who and what, what and who. For the people whose grammars are like mine in this respect, the question is still why there is this difference between wh coordinations and coordinations of ordinary noun phrases. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is silent on this point. It does talk about coordinated-wh questions, but has only two examples (p.874). One of them coordinates where and when (no help), and the other coordinates two wh noun phrases that are used as direct objects (still no help).

For the people whose grammars require plural agreement, there is less to explain, but I still wonder about the examples I found: How many of these authors’ internal grammars truly required plural agreement, and how many of these authors started with the singular, wondered about it during copyediting, and finally let the agreement rule for ordinary noun phrase coordinations override their native instincts?

9 Responses to “What Do You Do with What and Who?”

  1. My grammar is the same as yours on this. But if I read your G-hit figures correctly, it seems we’re in the minority. Sure you didn’t get the numbers reversed? If not, I’m inclined to buy your “over-editing” argument.

  2. Anonymous said

    Thank you for attempting to clarify a confusing usage. I have always had trouble with sentences like “Everybody knows that.” Isn’t everybody a lot of people? So why the singular verb? I hate feeling dumb when it comes to matching certain general nouns with the right verb conjugation; I’m glad to know that even PhDs are baffled once in a while. Illuminating post, Neil!


  3. Anonymous said

    I might be wrong, but I think that “everybody” is actually one of those trick words–it seems like it’s plural, since you mean a group of people when you say it, but it’s actually singular. So putting “knows” with it not only sounds better but is correct. I think. I have to take words like that and divide them up: everybody = every body = an individual person, just several times over…knows something. I have to do that with groups of words, too, like “a group of students” to remember that the verb goes with group, not students.

  4. Anonymous said

    However, I actually didn’t mind the wording that the person in the newspaper article used. Maybe not what I would have used intuitively, but once I read it I wondered what you were going to say about it since it sounded fine to me. At least on the first reading.

  5. Anonymous said

    Hi! I just discovered your blog and like it a lot: I plan to blogroll it. In my usage all variants are correct, depending on your vision of whether you are in fact talking about a singular or a plural. Both whos coming and whore coming are correct for me, depending on whether you think one or more people are coming.

    Im pretty sure this has always been my usage, though it might be influenced by 15 years of being in a Hebrew-speaking environment. In Hebrew this is also true, but in addition theres the added consideration of gender. You would have to choose from four variants: mi ba, mi baa, mi baim, mi baot, (respectively, masculine and feminine singular, masculine and feminine plural) though when in doubt, you use singular over plural, masculine over feminine. If you dont know anything youd say: mi ba.

    David Boxenhorn

  6. Anonymous said

    I just noticed that my apostrophes came out funny, like this: (Will it come out the same this time? Well see!


  7. Coppe said

    The pattern you describe here isn’t as strange as you think. Gracanin Yuksek (2007) argues (and pretty convincingly so) that sentences like “who and what was found?” have an underlying structure of “who [was found] and what was found?” So, these are actually then coordinated sentences with most of the clausal material elided in the first conjunct (or shared with the second conjunct, in Gracanin Yuksek’s account). The agreement facts follow from this.

    She argues that the structure you have in mind for these (with just the wh- arguments coordinated) is not possible in English (presumably because of the ban on multiple wh- extractions in English), but is possible in other languages. Her example is Croatian.

    Gracanin Yuksek, Martina. 2007. About sharing. Doctoral dissertation, MIT.

    • Neal said

      I have this dissertation, but I haven’t looked at it for a while. However, wouldn’t the ban on coordinated wh-arguments in English not apply when those they both fill the same argument position? In this case, both who and what are the subject/patient.

  8. […] Comments The Ridger on What You NeedNeal on What Do You Do with What and Who?Coppe on What Do You Do with What and Who?Neal on What You NeedThe Ridger on What […]

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