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Case A: "There stands the boy who has two heads."
Case B: "There stand the boys who have two heads." (If you are keeping count, the last two children have a total of four heads.)

My question is, what is the number of each of the whos and would linguists consider each of them to be uninflected?

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  • Can "who" be plural? Would you say: "Who go there?" "Who are on the committee?" Dec 15, 2013 at 16:29
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    @PeterShor Why not The senators who are on the committee ...?
    – bib
    Dec 15, 2013 at 16:38
  • Then you use a plural verb because "who" is a referent for the plural word senators. You could claim that the real subject of the clause is not who but senators. But if you ask the question: "Who is on the committee?", the verb is singular even though there are several people on the committee. Dec 15, 2013 at 16:39
  • I am clear on whether to use a singular or plural verb. My question address how a linguist my describe both of the relative pronouns. Dec 15, 2013 at 17:33
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    You have to distinguish interrogative who from relative who; they have different affordances. *Who are on the committee? is ungrammatical, whereas the people who are on the committee is quite ordinary grammatical English. As for how a linguist might describe the relative pronouns, I'd say they were human animate relative pronouns and subjects in their relative clauses. I wouldn't mention number at all; as you say, it's uninflected. If your program needs a number to chew on, you can copy it from the verb. Dec 15, 2013 at 17:58

2 Answers 2

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John Lawler wrote in a potentially ephemeral comment:

You have to distinguish interrogative who from relative who; they have different affordances. *Who are on the committee? is ungrammatical, whereas the people who are on the committee is quite ordinary grammatical English.

As for how a linguist might describe the relative pronouns, I'd say they were human animate relative pronouns and subjects in their relative clauses. I wouldn’t mention number at all; as you say, it's uninflected. If your program needs a number to chew on, you can copy it from the verb.

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It's ambiguous. To clarify, you need to say something like "... who in total have two ..." or "... who each have two ...". Who does not indicate number. Perhaps some grammarians think otherwise. But, whatever rules there may be on the matter, they are not widely enough known or followed for a writer or speaker to convey a clear meaning relying on them alone.

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