Thursday 17 April 2008

On who plurals

A correspondent writes to say that someone corrected him when he asked (before a tennis match): Who are playing? His friend said it should be Who is playing? He agreed that the plural sounded funny, but couldn't think why.

The plural sounds a bit odd because it is the normal unmarked use of who to be singular. This is because the who question is usually definite and particular. Who wants to open the bidding? is asking a specific individual to begin. Note the contrast with the indefinite and general use of who in the singular, as in Who wants to get Alzheimer's?, which means 'There is no-one who wants...' Faced with a question where a singular or a plural answer are both possible (as in the tennis case), people will find the singular interpretation more natural than the plural.

A plural indefinite who is perfectly possible, however, especially when the post-verbal element is explicitly multiple, as these examples illustrate:

Who are our top ten salesmen this year?
Who won first three places in the race?
Who are playing Smith and Brown in the doubles?
Who were fighting to preserve their nation?
Who are playing Hamlet and Horatio?

The last type of case is nice: it would be impossible to have a definite singular interpretation here, unless the actor somehow managed to play both parts simultaneously!


Anonymous said...

Hi. Thanks for this post. I was the guy who asked about this. Was just wondering exactly what I should say to my friend now. I hate it when he's right!

DO you mean to say that the "error" in my question "who is playing?" was an offence against idiom (or even euphony?) rather than an offence against grammar? As you show with your examples, it's clearly possible to have an interrogative "who" followed by a plural verb. I suppose I might have said to my friend "who are the players on court?" only that would have been a bit silly!

Anyway, thanks again for clearing a lot of this up for me. Great blog too.

DC said...

It's not a question of right or wrong - and certainly not of 'offence'. The plural form is just less usual - because the singular form can be used for either one or more than one. Who's playing? Answer: Federer. Or: Federer and Smith. If you used the plural form, you would have been specifically asking about all the players involved.

Annie said...

Likewise, we cannot say, can we, 'Who is expected to love William Shakespeare?' Because the answer is indisputable: ' I, you, he, she, we, you, they and IT!' Especially today - on his 444th birthday!