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"They were being rude." She said. I went to ask her, "Who was being rude?" Then I thought to myself, as an English teacher (TEFL), why on earth did I just use the singular when referring to a plural. Should I have said "Who were being rude?" And then I thought to myself, no, that sounds weird.

Couldn't find anything on this around the internet. Nor in my Oxford Guide to English Grammar, except that we use the singular verb with "who", but that doesn't always make sense.

I know it's normal to say, "Who were they?" and not "Who was they?" as well.

Please help

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    They normally means more than one person, unless you are certain that it is being used as a non-gender-specific way of referring to one individual. "Who were being rude?" doesn't sound weird. Nov 16, 2020 at 11:34
  • I just can't find the rules on this anywhere.
    – Gary Moore
    Nov 16, 2020 at 14:00
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    The only rule is that 'they' is plural and takes 'were', unless you know only one person was meant. Nov 16, 2020 at 15:10
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    @KateBunting That's the rule for They were being rude. It's not the rule for Who was being rude? Nov 16, 2020 at 15:49
  • Yeah, that's what I mean John. I don't think I've ever heard someone say, "Who were being _____ ?" before.
    – Gary Moore
    Nov 17, 2020 at 1:48

2 Answers 2

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Reference is not everything. Who in a question (as opposed to a relative clause) can be and usually is singular in reference, but its reference is indefinite -- that's the point of Wh-questions, after all.

It's also worth noting that be is the only verb that distinguishes singular and plural in the past tense. With any other verb but be the form would be fixed, and number agreement would never occur.

The upshot is that, since one need not know (and is conventionally assumed not to know) the answer to one's question, interrogative who, what, and which subjects can be assumed to agree with singular verbs in the question. Even if you know better, it's simpler to avoid the complication.

Interrogative pronouns are not really referential -- like all the small words, articles, prepositions, auxiliaries, particles, and so on, they're part of the grammatical machinery, and they don't carry meaning so much as (attempt to) shore up the structure.

Think of them as being officially singular, like clauses and phrases as subjects:

  • Down the toilet is/*are where they go.
  • That they left early was/*were lucky for you.
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we use the singular verb with "who", but that doesn't always make sense.

I know it's normal to say, "Who were they?" and not "Who was they?" as well.

It is true in general that “we use the singular verb with ‘who’” in questions, but “with who” doesn’t mean it applies to any sentence containing “who”. Because verb agreement in English is always based on the subject of a clause, what this rule really means is that we use a singular verb in a clause where the interrogative pronoun who is the subject.

In sentences like “Who were they?” or “Who are they?”, “who” is not the subject, so that rule doesn’t apply. “They” is the subject, so “were” and “are” are used in agreement, just like “am” is used in agreement with “I” in “Who am I?” “Who” comes at the start of the sentence despite not being the subject because it is a wh-word, like where in “Where were they?”

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