Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Coordinated WH words’ Category

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?

Posted in Coordinated WH words, Morphology, Ohioana | 9 Comments »