I'm wondering whether expressions like the ones below are correct or not. I've seen them several times but they don't seem to follow the typical grammatical structure.

  • Who comes? (instead of who do come?)
  • Who knows?
  • What happened? (instead of what did happen?)

So why are they constructed in this way? Are there many other expressions of this kind?


Yes, those sentences are correct. You are wondering why these questions do not have do + infinitive, like most questions. I won't bore you with basic grammar lessons. The reason is that the interrogative pronoun is the subject of the sentence. Whenever that is the case, a question takes the same form as a statement (apart from the addition of the interrogative pronoun itself). The normal subject–verb inversion doesn't happen either, because interrogative pronouns usually need to be in first position.

What do you do? [you = subject]

Who knows the answer? [who = subject]

Note that you could add a form of do if you want to put extra emphasis on the sentence (which is normally not necessary).

A: Did you steal her car?

B: No, man! She's crazy.

A: Then who did steal her car? She is freaking out! [not required; emphasizes question; marks contrast with previous negative answer]

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  • Erm, sorry to point out, but in your last example did does not emphasize anything - it's a mandatory auxiliary verb. It'll be emphasizing one, if you write But you did do something to her! She's freaking out! Tell me! – Philoto Jun 15 '11 at 12:11
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    @Philoto: Oops! You're absolutely right. I changed the question I had in mind twice, then ended up with a useless example... – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jun 15 '11 at 12:20
  • I would possibly have turned the explanation round: "do" support isn't present BECAUSE there's no inversion. Saying it "doesn't happen either" makes it sound like the two observations are independent accidents. – Neil Coffey Jun 15 '11 at 14:28
  • @NeilCofey: Okay, so how does that work? Inversion entails do-support? But only in questions? What about do-support in non-questions? I wasn't sure what the relation was between the two—that's why I didn't mention it (yet). – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jun 15 '11 at 16:54
  • @Cerberus: To pick up an ancient comment train, how is do-support tied to inversion? Either can occur on its own? They're far from accidents in this example, but I'm not sure how to describe their connexion here. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jun 12 '15 at 22:27

It can be argued that they all follow the normal structure for intransitive verbs of subject + verb, where the subject in these cases is who or what, rather than, say, he or she.

With regard to the specific examples:

  • "Who comes?" sounds a little odd. "Who is coming?" is more natural.
  • "Who do come?" is incorrect, as question words like who take the 3rd person singular form of the verb, i.e. "Who does come?"
  • "What did it happened?" is also incorrect. It should be "What did happen?"
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  • You can use do in positive statement to emphasize the main verb. I do know that is the same as I know that with emphasis on the fact, that the speaker really knows what he is talking about. – Philoto Jun 15 '11 at 12:05
  • @Philoto: That's true. However, it doesn't always sound natural, as the examples in the question demonstrate. – Steve Melnikoff Jun 15 '11 at 12:50
  • @Philoto: Hmm...fair point. Context is everything! Will edit answer. – Steve Melnikoff Jun 15 '11 at 12:55
  • They sound pretty natural to me. "What happen to your face, you're bleeding!" "Nothing, darling, it's nothing" "Don't give me this crap! What did happen to you?" – Philoto Jun 15 '11 at 13:02
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    This seems to have spawned two chats; one is here, and the other is here. – Steve Melnikoff Jun 14 '15 at 15:10

These are shortenings of their actual expressions:

"Who comes" could either be a derivative of "Who is coming?" or "Who goes there?"

"Who knows" is a shortening of "Who could know what actually happened?"

"What happened" is another shortening of "What actually happened just then?"

They're all easier to say, that's why they were constructed like this. In speech, we tend to shorten things.

Other examples could include:

"What?" as in "What was that?"
"There" instead of "It is over there"

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  • I can't agree. When who/what are nominative the question is formed without to do. That has nothing to do with shortenings. – rogermue Jun 12 '15 at 22:30

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