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Here's what Michael Swan* has to say on the subject:

"When 'who' and 'what' are used to ask for the subject of a clause, they most often have singular verbs, even if the question expects a plural answer:

Who is working tomorrow? Phil, Lucy and Shareena (are working tomorrow)...
Who was at the party?...
What lives in those little holes...?

When "who" and 'what' are used to ask for the complement of a clause, they can have plural verbs.

Who are your closest friends?
What are your politics?...."

So the grammatical rule would be that when "who" is not followed by a noun that refers to it, the verb is singular. However, when there is a plural noun that serves as the predicate nominative for "who," the verb is plural.

Who speaks Spanish in this class?
All thirty of us, teacher.

Who is voting for incumbent?
The whole town, all 50,000 of us.

Who wants to win the lottery?


Who are those students?
Who are the people who are voting for the incumbent?
Who are the people who want to win the lottery?


*Practical English Usage. Oxford University Press. 1995
I would like to illustrate my answer to the question with the following sentence:

S1: There are two books on the desk.

If we underline "two books" and ask our students to turn the sentence into a wh-question, we will get the following two questions:

Q1: What is there on the desk?
Q2: What are there on the desk?

Q1 is a REAL question. We ask such a question when we do not know whether there is one book, two books or even no books on the desk. In other words, when we ask such a question, we do not presuppose what it is or the number of it.

Q2 is different from Q1 in that we generally have presupposed that there is something and that the number of this something is grammatically plural. This occurs, for example, when we hang up a picture with several planes flying in the sky and do some oral question-and-answer exercises about the noun "plane" and its plural form "planes": What are there in the sky? In most cases of this kind, we can see what it is and know the number of it.

One more, subtle example:

Host: What will you have to drink?
Guest: What are the possibilities?

The guest here presupposes (and takes it for granted) that the host has more than one kind of drink. That's why the guest does not ask, "What is the possibility?"

To sum up, when we say Q1, we do not presuppose the number, and when we say Q2, we presuppose the number.

By the way, I find that there are two more wh-questions possible for S1:

Q3: What is on the desk?
Q4: What are on the desk?

because people often use either Q1 or Q3 to practice the existential sentences. It seems that the "there" in Q1 and Q2 can be left out, with the syntactic role of "what" interpreted differently. Q2 and Q4 are rarely touched in textbooks or grammar books.

Chuncan Feng
(Rachel, I couldn't reach you by email.)

It is true that Q1 and Q3 are the default question patterns with regard to S1. When we use them, we do not presuppose what the "what" is and the number of it and both a singular and plural answer are acceptable. What I intended to say in my previous post is that, sometimes, we might presuppose the number of the "what". Such presuppositions might occur in both questions and statements. Students often have difficulties in understanding the subject-verb concord in such cases. Here are 4 more examples, one for a question and the other three for statements:

S2 From the bottom of his basket he brought forth a number of small packages. "What are in those?" "These are clay insects."

S3 Have you not, in your own secret souls, in your own private conversings, felt that there are woes and evils, in this accursed system, far beyond what are here shadowed, or can be shadowed?

S4 I learn the proposition off by heart and then he draws it on the blackboard and puts different letters from what are in the book and I get all mixed up.

S5 His clothes, save what were upon him, had descended to his man-servant for back wages.

As for the syntactic possibility of Q2 and Q4, I learned their existence in English from certain English textbooks for beginners of English, textbooks by native speakers. (Sorry I have forgotten the names of the books. It's a long time since I took a look at them. Two American teachers, working in our university at that time, about 10 years ago, also said that they were possible, but less usual than the other two. They also confirmed the difference I suggested in my previous post between the singular and the plural forms.) Statistically, I do find Q2 and Q4 are rare in my corpus findings, in questions in particular.

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