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I came across these lines in a hymn:

Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Which wert and art, and ever more shalt be.

I noticed that "wert", "art", and "shalt" were used with the subject "which" in the last line instead of which "thou." At first I thought this was just a grammatical mistake on the side of the hymn writer, but then I kept seeing such things where verbs in second person singular form are used with indefinite pronouns such as "which" or "who". Another example is give in this StackExchange question whose answer doesn't really answer my question.

So now I'm wondering, is it correct to use second person singular verbs with indefinite pronouns if the indefinite pronoun refers to a second person singular pronoun (in the hymn, "which" reffers to "Thee" from the last line)?

  • Welcome to EL&U! A sound question indeed. Would you care to tell us which hymn it is you are referring to to aid our research? – A Lambent Eye Jan 16 at 18:22
  • @ALambentEye Sure. It was Holy, Holy, Holy. I included he second-to-last line of the verse I was talking about to give the context of the sentence. – ElliotThomas Jan 16 at 19:09
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    Who art – Hot Licks Jan 17 at 0:28
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Yes, "thou (...) who art" or "thee (...) who art" are correct.

I wasn't sure from the title whether you were asking about relative pronouns or interrogative pronouns, so I will discuss both in my post.

In the hymn that you quote, the relative pronoun "which" takes second-person singular agreement because its antecedent is the second-person singular pronoun "thee". This is a special thing that happened/happens in old-fashioned or formal English' related questions about this topic are What rules make “Remember me, who am your friend” grammatical? and "Me who is" or "me who am"?

In terms of interrogatives, "Who art..." would be possible in a sentence with "thou": "Who art thou?" In modern English, sentences of this type (e.g. "Who am I?") are best analyzed as having "who" as the (fronted) predicate rather than as the subject: a piece of evidence that "I" and not "who" is the subject of "Who am I?" is that we can't say *"Who am me", even though in predicate position "me" is usually possible (we can say “It was me,” regardless of whether it’s considered “incorrect” from a prescriptive point of view). In older varieties of English, I'm not sure whether there is any clear way of establishing which word is the subject in questions like this.

  • Even if "who" were the subject in "Who am I", wouldn't "I" be the predicate nominative, which is in the nominative form ("I" instead of "me"), anyway? – ElliotThomas Jan 16 at 17:02
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    If you want to refute the theory that the subject in "Who am I?" is "who", why not consider "who is me"? After all, if the subject is "who", nothing forces the verb to be first-person, right? – Rosie F Jan 16 at 17:11
  • @RosieF "Who is me?" would be incorrect because it would still be of the form "Subject linking_verb predicate_nominative". Since the predicate_nominative has to be in the nominative form, it would have to be "Who is I?", but then I guess the verb doesn't agree with "who," because, according to this answer, the verb for "who" needs to agree with whatever the "who" represents (in this case, "I"). Thus, it would have to be "Who am I?" regardless of whether the "Who" or the "I" are the subject, which is ambiguous as ambiguous as asking which letter is equal to what in "a = b". – ElliotThomas Jan 16 at 17:59
  • @ElliotThomas: Descriptively, predicate personal pronouns can be in the objective case in modern English grammar. – sumelic Jan 16 at 22:19
  • @sumelic I know, such as in the case "We adopted him." However, when the personal pronoun is a predicate nominative ("Subject liking_verb/equals predicate_nominative) such as the case "The judge is he," you would use the nominative case for personal pronouns. – ElliotThomas Jan 17 at 18:52
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The language is archaic (the hymn was written in 1861) on purpose.
Compare this to the Lord's Prayer. Matthew 6:9 reads in the King James version: "Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name."

The construction "which art" was current in the 17th century, but uncommon yet understood in the 19th. The lyricist Reginald Heber meant to match the older style

The lines in question,

Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Which wert and art, and ever more shalt be.

are based on Revelation 4:8:

And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying,
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.

(KJV)

So the verbs wert, art, shalt be, are correct in an archaic usage and are used here for their poetic value.

Hope this helps.

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Consider:

  • He, who is your master, ...
  • They, who are your masters, ...
  • You, who are my master, ...
  • You, who are my masters, ...
  • I, who am your master, ...

I surely wouldn't say "I, who is your master, ..." or "You, who is my master, ...", or "They, who is my masters, ...".

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    So is your answer to the original Q 'Yes' or 'No'? – TrevorD Jan 16 at 16:58
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    Do you think I reached the conclusion that I arrived at in my response (that the form of the copula follows not "who" but its antecedent) and then expected it to be understood that the exact opposite conclusion should be drawn about the original question? – Green Grasso Holm Jan 16 at 17:03
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    I'm sorry, but I understand neither your answer nor your comment - and I can see no clear "conclusion" in your answer. It is not clear to me how your answer relates to the Q. about "Who art". I also note that the questioner is a "New contributor" and that we are asked to be considerate about how we respond to new contributors. – TrevorD Jan 16 at 17:36
  • @TrevorD I think I understand his answer. Just as you would say "I, who am your master", you would have to say, "Thou, who art my master." – ElliotThomas Jan 16 at 18:00
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    This answer would definitely be improved by providing a more explicit answer. I'd suggest following the common format "The answer to your question is YES, and here's the reason why..." – barbecue Jan 16 at 18:54

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