Sentence: it's not what's on the table that matters, but who (is/are) in the chairs.

I thought are might be correct because of plural chairs, but family members disagree.

  • Pretty funny how (for me) this is the second google search result for “who are vs who is” and it’s closed as off topic and has a wrong answer. – Boris Nov 17 '20 at 0:54

Related: https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/22900/who-singular-or-plural

Closed, nearly-identical question (off-topic): Can "who" be plural when it is the subject of a sentence?

Relevant discussion: http://thegrammarexchange.infopop.cc/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/340600179/m/7756074182

Who can be both singular or plural dependent on the noun which it is replacing. 'Chairs' in the plural implies that some sentient plural noun will be occupying those chairs.

'Who is' in the chairs would imply a single entity occupying multiple chairs. 'Why are you in my chairs?!' An interesting thought.

'Who are in the chairs?' correctly identifies the chairs' occupants as plural and thus is the correct format.

  • 2
    But one can indeed ask 'Who are sitting in the chairs?' 'Who is' is also acceptable, but it isn't the only possibility according to anything I've read. The grammar exchange discussion I linked in my answer (edited in) has some interesting discussion on the topic. – Coty Johnathan Saxman Dec 22 '14 at 5:08
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    This answer is wrong. If we can ask "Who is on the committee" we should be able to ask "Who is in the chairs?" (Unless you think committee is synonymous with dictatorship.) And we can ask "Who is on the committee." Google it if you don't believe me. – Peter Shor Dec 22 '14 at 5:24
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    The possibility of 'who is' as a grammatically correct construction does not eliminate the possibility of 'who are' as a grammatically correct construction. As the answer contains several links, the suggestion to 'Google it' rings hollow. – Coty Johnathan Saxman Dec 22 '14 at 5:28
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    What I'm objecting to is the idea that saying "who is in the chairs" implies that one person is occupying all the chairs. This is just not true. None of your links say that using "who is" for more than one person is incorrect, and at least one says the exact opposite. – Peter Shor Dec 22 '14 at 5:29
  • It's an option. I'm a native speaker. The construction in question here has an implicit plural subject. The 'who is' construction isn't ungrammatical. 'Who are' is another option, and when the purpose of the sentence is to convey a sense of community there is little doubt that the chairs are occupied by more than one person. – Coty Johnathan Saxman Dec 22 '14 at 5:34

[no longer relevant to original question]

The matter seems to be discussed. Some sources indicate that interrogative form of who is always singular (end of first paragraph: “Interrogative pronouns are never plural”).

Who is in the chairs?

Who does the being, it is subject, therefore the verb is singular person.

Now, it might be acceptable to use a plural in some edge cases. In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985 Quirk et al.), page 756:

Similarly, interrogative who and what as subjects normally take a singular verb even when the speaker has reason to believe that more than one person or entity is involved. However, a plural verb may be used if other words in the sentence indicate that a plural subject is expected in the answer

It is still inadvisable though. For instance, on page 371 of the same book, it says that

even though several voices are heard outside, the natural question will be Who's there? rather than ?*Who're there?

The ?* sign is used in the book for marking mostly yet not completely unacceptable examples.

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    "The interrogative form of who is always singular." Didn't know that. Care to link to more information? – ba_ul Dec 22 '14 at 4:39
  • Unfortunately I only have my English course notes at hand. I must go now, but I guess you could search for "interrogative pronoun' on google. [edit: added a link, first google answer] – spectras Dec 22 '14 at 5:34
  • I added a link to a detailed article on interrogative pronouns. First paragraph detail the basic grammar rules, including “Interrogative pronouns are never plural”. – spectras Dec 22 '14 at 5:47
  • testden.com/toefl/english-grammar-for-students/… TOEFL guide on interrogative pronouns: "Who is...singular and plural" grammar.yourdictionary.com/parts-of-speech/pronouns/… YourDictionary lists 'who' along with other interrogative pronouns that can be used as plurals. One style guide (your link) that I found says no. Others are more of the 'situation dictates' stance. – Coty Johnathan Saxman Dec 22 '14 at 6:02
  • By the way, the TOEFL link I provided has laughable typographical errors on the page, but it is nonetheless a statement of fact (or stylistic preference?) from a major English language authority. – Coty Johnathan Saxman Dec 22 '14 at 6:05

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