Is "who" singular or plural?



Which one of the following is correct:

  1. What do residential areas in a big city look like, and who lives there?

  2. What do residential areas in a big city look like, and who live there?

There are more people there, so would "live" be correct?

Caroline Sitskoorn

Posted 2015-03-04T16:44:09.170

Reputation: 91

Both are grammatical and are standard English. As to which is more appropriate, then, it depends on the author and on what the author is trying to say. Here's a post that has some related info: Which is the correct question (“Who has” vs “Who have”)?

– F.E. – 2015-03-05T00:24:32.263

Notice that 'Is “who” singular or plural?' is quite a different question from 'Which one of the following [two alternatives] is correct [/ preferable]?'. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-03-05T18:37:27.877



This is a compound sentence. Try breaking it apart.

What do residential areas in a big city look like? Who lives there?

"Who live there?" would sound wrong, no? While "who" might refer to many people, it is treated as singular in an interrogative where the verb acting on the interrogative pronoun isn't a form of "to be".

  • Who lives there?
  • Who does that?
  • Who eats this kind of food?

If that verb is a form of "to be", then the verb agrees with the number of the predicate.

  • Who are the people that live there?
  • Who are the people that do that?
  • Who are the people that eat this kind of food?

Paul Rowe

Posted 2015-03-04T16:44:09.170

Reputation: 292

What are you including as copular verbs? The term is ill-defined. Be does seem to be very special in this respect, but seem and appear also take plural agreement: 'Who seem best suited to these conditions?' – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-03-04T23:36:44.873

Could you provide a grammar source to support your opinion? – F.E. – 2015-03-05T00:13:46.490

Who the heck is upvoting this answer? – F.E. – 2015-03-05T02:50:24.240

@EdwinAshworth To my ears, using any verb other than "be" in the plural sounds unnatural at best. – Paul Rowe – 2015-03-05T14:59:45.330

@EdwinAshworth I see your point about my use of the word. I had derived the definition of copula from context and not known it also applied to seem and appear. As commented before, they sound unnatural in this situation: "Who seem ...?" or, "Who appear...?" – Paul Rowe – 2015-03-05T15:03:35.133

Yes – this seems a complex situation. I can't think why it was migrated from ELU. I'd say that echo questions always sound acceptable, irrespective of the verb: --'The Visi-elbonians live in that swamp.' --'Who live there?' However, in most other settings, use of plural agreement after interrogative who sounds, as you say, very unnatural. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-03-05T15:08:23.423

@F.E. I am having trouble finding a grammar source. I was basing my statement on my own analysis of situations. If you can find a natural-sounding sentence that violates my answer, feel free to elaborate. – Paul Rowe – 2015-03-05T15:15:37.227

Here's a post that has some related info: Which is the correct question (“Who has” vs “Who have”)? That post also contains excerpts from the 2002 reference grammar CGEL and the 1985 reference grammar by Quirk et al. You will notice that your answer is not consistent with those reference grammars.

– F.E. – 2015-03-05T21:37:48.797

Also, notice the 2002 CGEL's example: [20.ii] "Who haven't yet handed in their assignments?", which has no form of the BE verb in it. And also consider the unremarkable: "Who haven't yet contributed to the SPCA?" Those are counter examples to your answer post. – F.E. – 2015-03-05T21:47:45.737

@F.E. These are good counter examples and sources thereof. I'll admit, though, that they don't sound natural to my (American) ear. Certainly, I personally would prefer "has" to "have" in those sentences. – Paul Rowe – 2015-03-05T21:53:24.310

It depends on the context. Though, the singular is usually the default (but there are exceptions where the plural is obligatory), the context and the speaker's intent and expectation of the type of answer they expect to hear will be a major factor in how the speaker will form the question (whether to use a singular or plural verb). – F.E. – 2015-03-05T21:56:50.553

1Who haven't faced each other in the competition yet? obviously takes an obligatory plural verb agreement – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-03-05T22:50:51.870


Saying who lives there is correct. You can't say who live there, however you can say those/the ones who live there but that would change the meaning as follows:

What do residential areas in a big city look like, and who (meaning "what kind of person") lives there?

What do residential areas in a big city look like, and [what do] those who live there [look like]?


Posted 2015-03-04T16:44:09.170

Reputation: 226

Could you provide a grammar source to support your opinion? – F.E. – 2015-03-05T00:14:32.327

'Who live there?' is certainly acceptable as an echo question. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-03-05T15:26:01.793


"Who lives there" would be correct, but the "who" implication for the listener should be understood as "what kind of people"; such as, "well-to-do professionals", "construction workers and lumberjacks", "poor Haitian refugees" or whatever


Posted 2015-03-04T16:44:09.170

Reputation: 1

Could you provide a grammar source to support your opinion? – F.E. – 2015-03-05T00:15:04.140

Why can't I, just having come to stay with my aunt in her quaint little village after she's written to me so many times telling me what the locals get up to, point to a lovely little cottage and ask her 'Who lives there?'? – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-03-05T15:24:30.633


This is a very intelligent question.

If I recall all such sentences, I see that 'who' in itself is singular. That's because if you ask a simple question, who ______ there? The obvious verb there is 'lives' and not 'live'.

On the other hand, if provided with some context, 'who' can address to a plural word as well.

I'm referring to those who are wearing red tee.

Having said that, 'who' on its own seems singular, but provided with context, can serve to a plural word as well.

Maulik V

Posted 2015-03-04T16:44:09.170

Reputation: 66 188

Too imprecise. There is always context. Who do they think they are? is perfectly grammatical (and probably more importantly, natural-sounding). You probably intend to distinguish between interrogative and relative pronoun usages. – Edwin Ashworth – 2015-03-05T15:17:55.527