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The phrase "who knows what" and other variations of it refer to unknown things, for a lack of a better descriptor. When writing a story in the past tense, would this phrase change?

His pocket contained a key ring, spare coins, folded-up slips of paper, and who knows what else.

Compared to:

His pocket contained a key ring, spare coins, folded-up slips of paper, who knew what else.

Is using the present tense considered inconsistent? Is one preferable to the other?

2 Answers 2

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who knows what and who knows what else are English idiomatic expressions. (I know them from British English, but the citations below suggest they are also common in American English.)

who knows what
One or more things described with no detail.
Our junk drawer has old remotes, instruction manuals, and who knows what else in it.
You're supposed to be doing your homework, but instead you're slacking off and doing who knows what!

Because it's an idiomatic expression, it's generally treated as a single entity (I think the technical term is 'noun phrase'). Hence, it is not appropriate to change knows to knew because it is not serving independently as a verb, but merely as a component of the phrase.

As the definition above indicates, it is used to refer to one or more things (or even actions – see the second example sentence above "doing who knows what!) that are either not worth mentioning individually and/or are unknown.

Here are some websites that use the expression in their titles:

What I'm Thinking and Who Knows What Else
Jewelry design and who knows what else…
Dances, Romances, Who Knows What Else

and a sentence from a website:

Google may dabble in hardware, driverless cars, and who knows what else, but it makes the bulk of its money on advertising.

and here it's used as a website tag: who knows what else

In conclusion, knows is not being used as a verb, and hence does not change tense. It is not being used to refer to "who knew what" at the time that "[h]is pocket" was being examined, and therefore the past tense would be inappropriate.

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    (1) As an American, I can confirm that its use is common here as well. (2) Also, I think it's worth pointing out that the verb doesn't need to change because it is the speaker and their audience who do not know the exact nature of the items being described. When you say "Our junk drawer has old remotes, instruction manuals, and who knows what else in it", you are indicating that neither you (the speaker) nor anybody present know what else was in the drawer at that time in the past. I think this is why the tense will not change, regardless of circumstance. Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 1:53
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The past tense is certainly the right choice here. It is far less jarring than that sudden shift to the present tense.

I'm not even sure what the writer thinks is being gained by using the present tense.

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  • As explained in my answer, "who knows what" is an idiomatic expression; and 'knows' is not being used as a verb.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 0:30
  • Why do you think that "knows" is not being used as a verb? We say "Who knows what" when the rest of the passage is in the present tense (as often done when speaking.) We say "Who knew what?" when the rest of the passage is in the past tense, as it would usually be in writing.
    – Ann
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 20:23
  • If discussing who knew what information at a particular time, yes, you would use "knew". But when you're using it as an idiomatic expression (noun phrase) to refer to "one or more things described with no detail" then you do not put nouns into the past tense. You are not discussing who knew what was in the pocket at the time. You are merely conveying that no-one is/was particularly bothered about the exact contents. The expression does not refer to a point in time, nor to actual knowledge of the pocket contents - rather it conveys the opposite, that the actual contents was immaterial.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 22:25
  • Well, of course, "knows" is not a noun, and nouns can't be "put into the past tense" anyway. .I will point out again that it is less jarring to suddenly switch to the present tense in the middle of a past-tense narrative.
    – Ann
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 9:42
  • Of course "knows" (when used alone in it's normal sense) is not a noun. But the complete expression "who knows what else" is a noun-phrase, meaning that the entire expression is treated as a noun - and not* as 4 separate words. "know" is *not functioning *alone as a verb - but as merely an integral part of the composite phrase. Following the definition I quoted, you might replace "who knows what else" by "lots of junk" or "several miscellaneous items" (without changing it's meaning). cont'd ...
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 15:30

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