"Who appointed him mayor?" Who is an unknown, so would the pronoun number be unknown?

Part of my question entails sub-verb agreement. If verbs are classified as being singular or plural, can they be unknown, hence because the subject who is unknown then would the verb appointed be classified as with the number as unknown?

I am looking for a specific grammar rule or concept for this question. I have looked at many old grammar books on Google Books to no avail.

1 Answer 1


In theory, the number of a verb can be unknown. But I would rather phrase it thus: in theory, there can be multiple interpretations of the number of a particular verb form.

In your example, the number may be open to two interpretations to the audience, but it is probably known to the speaker. She must have had either one or more people in mind, even if she considered it possible that one person had appointed him or two.

We normally always assume one of the possible interpretations in syntax, even if, semantically, we keep several options open at 50% each. When I say whoever enters this room should display his letter of assent, I assume this person is masculine, even if chances are 50% that it should be a woman. The assumption has nothing to do with my actual estimation of the chance of its being a man in this particular situation: it is just a "by default".

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