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Since 'pants' is one of those always plural words, I can't figure out which sounds right.

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marked as duplicate by Lynn, tchrist, MετάEd, aedia λ, Kris Apr 30 '13 at 5:58

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

Not as a duplicate but as a NARQ. See my comment @tchrist below. – Kris Apr 30 '13 at 5:58

My dup-close vote was miscast, so let me make amends by supplying an answer. That said, I feel like this is actually General Reference, and far too simple for this site. It’s part of the fundamental mechanics of how numeric concordance between subject and verb works, and it is hardly limited to English alone. This is a very, very common feature of many languages.

The bottom line is that word order does not matter. The grammatical number of the subject dictates the grammatical number of that subject’s verb. The subject of the sentence is not pants but he.

Because you would always say

He is wearing those pants.

and not

He *are wearing those pants.

in just the same fashion, you must therefore ask

He is wearing what pants?
What pants is he wearing?

and never

He *are wearing what pants?
What pants *are he wearing?

because the subject is he and thus the corresponding verb must be singular.

This is just like how when you rearrange this sentence:

The boy races down the streets.

into this:

Down the streets races the boy.

That the new proximity of streets to the verb has no effect whatsoever upon the number of that verb, because streets is still not the subject. Boy is.

Similarly, in

The woman carrying three purses looks ready to drop one.

Just because purses is near the verb does not change the number of that verb, since its subject is actually the singular woman rather than the plural purses.

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+1 I would add though that "what pants is he wearing" sounds odd and because of that a native speaker (who cared) might switch to something like, "Which pants does he have on?" or "Which pants has he got on?" – Jim Apr 30 '13 at 5:21
Your dup-close vote was indeed miscast. It should have been NARQ-close instead. The question is a trick and this answer falls right into it! "What cars is he going to buy?" not "What cars are he going to buy?" Don't fall for Qs as this. – Kris Apr 30 '13 at 5:57

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