Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

What and Who Revisited

Posted by Neal on June 6, 2010

A comment on my last post prompted me to review one that I wrote in 2004, about the sentence

[Someone] plans to use charts she’s drawn each day to map out in detail who and what were found.

What I found strange was the use of the plural verb were. To me, it sounds much more natural to say was. But why should it? If you were coordinating two singular non-wh noun phrases, such as Jim and his dog, you’d definitely use a plural verb and say Jim and his dog were found, not *Jim and his dog was found. So why not a plural with who and what?

I was tempted to say the verb was singular because the sentence was understood to be who was found and what was found. In other words, I was thinking that the sentence might involve VP-ellipsis. But I rejected that answer, because you could use the same logic to give a pass to the ungrammatical *Jim and his dog was found. However, a recent commenter, citing Martina Gracanin-Yuksek’s 2007 dissertation, says VP-ellipsis is indeed exactly what’s going on. I’ve read some of this dissertation, but I’ll have to take a closer look to see how she handles my objection.

In the meantime, I decided to do a little more research on coordinations of who and what, this time using CoCA, which wasn’t available in 2004. I started with what and who coordinations. My Google search in 2004 showed 90% singular verb forms when the subject was “what and who”. With CoCA, I found 25 possible examples. I threw out those with verbs that could be either singular or plural (i.e. past tenses and modals like will). I also threw out examples that followed a template of “what and who”+be+NP, since in these examples the subject is almost always the NP, not the what and who. I threw out a few other irrelevant hits, too, and ended up with eight examples of what I was looking for. Of them, 87.5% have a singular verb form, and 12.5% have the plural. Pretty consistent with the last research I did.


  • SINGULAR (87.5%)
    1. at the center of the beauty contest controversy lies the struggle to determine what and who gets to represent diasporic Chineseness in Central America and Panama
    2. what and who gets published, reviewed, funded, taught and cited. by key people in key places ” determines and patrols the disciplinary field, “
    3. Palestinians are holding fast to deeply divergent theories about what and who is fueling the conflict.
    4. Specific instructions are provided for conducting peer evaluations, …, and the criteria for what and who is to be evaluated
    5. what and who gets published, reviewed, funded, taught, cited.
    6. What and who was best for little Bailey?
    7. It tells us what and who was important in the society
  • PLURAL (12.5%)
    1. What and who are coming to entertain us Friday?

Doing a similar search for who and what back in 2004, I got 70% singular and 30% plural. Not as strong a result as 90% to 10%, but still striking. With CoCA, I got 58 possible results, which became 23 after tossing out the irrelevancies. This time I got 78% singular, and 22% plural. Again, pretty consistent with the last research.


  • SINGULAR (78%)
    1. This recent spate of ethnically marked museums raises the issue as to who and what determines which groups should be honored at the national museum
    2. On who and what defines patriotism
    3. who can act as a go-between, how much can be paid to whom and for what, and who and what defines a suitable adoptive parent.
    4. Regardless of which party has control of the White House, it should be who and what represents our country the best.
    5. Lynn Eusan’s death at the hands of one of our own brothers in the community means that we’ve got to rethink and revisit who and what represents the enemy.
    6. Find out who and what motivates them, and get ready to talk back.
    7. indicates that providers determine who and what gets served far more than consumers.
    8. call into question (to paraphrase Greg Sarris’s words), the notion of who and what constitutes an ” Indian ”
    9. How does their production of cosmopolitanism challenge assumptions about who and what is cosmopolitan?
    10. the question is, who and what is going to be investigated?
    11. I can — the excuse obvious — stand patiently and peer into houses to see who and what is being had for dinner. [NW: Nice zeugma!]
    12. They say that it should take a while for the Highway Patrol — the highway crews to get out here and lift that road to see who and what is left under there.
    13. Other employers privately express doubts about who and what is at fault for the growing number of cumulative trauma disorders
    14. leaves the student in the dark as far as who and what is being evaluated.
    15. So odor battles often hinge on who and what was present first.
    16. They either ended up dead or quitting the minute they caught a look at exactly who and what was after her.
    17. if we knew where our food was coming from, if we knew who and what was involved in getting it to our tables, we would doubtless be appalled at the evils wrought on our behalf
    18. the dominant station clock, which sometimes flaunted a Mercury-like figure from its pinnacle, to show who and what was in command
  • PLURAL (22%)
    1. And being single means dating different people, figuring out who and what work best for you, and, most of all, having a little fun.
    2. The arguments over who and what constitute jazz are as old as the music itself,
    3. it was very difficult even for those in government to sort out who and what were legitimate.
    4. Who and what are privileged and valued are often contested, as are interpretations of events
    5. where and how biodiversity counts, and who and what are buffered in biosphere reserves.

So could these all really be cases of VP-ellipsis? I have a couple of diagnostics for ellipsis that I want to try, so stay tuned for the continuation in the next post.

2 Responses to “What and Who Revisited”

  1. Jonathon said

    Could it be an issue of definiteness? Perhaps two indefinite pronouns simply don’t add up to a plural.

  2. Ran said

    I almost get the impression that “who and what” is its own interrogative pronoun, one that happens to take the form of a coordination.

    I imagine it’s related to the fact that interrogative “who” prefers a singular verb, even when the response is clearly expected to be multiple people. Even interrogative “who all” (used as a sort of plural “who” by some speakers, including me — compare “you all”, “y’all”) takes a singular verb. (Google does show some hits with a plural verb, but I looked at all of COCA’s results for “who all is”, “who all was”, “who all has” and their plural counterparts, and found a total of 17 relevant for the former and 0 relevant for the latter. So singular definitely seems to be preferred by a wide margin, at least in the U.S.)

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