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"What does a cow give us?"

I am just wondering if 'COW' is singular, shouldn't the sentence be

What does a cow GIVES us?

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No, it shouldn't.

You're confused because it's a question, so the sentence structure is inverted. The uninverted sentence structure is as follows:

A cow does give us what?

The subject-verb isn't "cow give." The subject-verb is "cow does give." Based on the third-person singular subject "cow," the verb "do" is conjugated into the third-person singular present indicative tense "does."

In this sentence, "does" is a helping verb. When you have a helping verb, the structure is: the helping verb followed by the main verb, which appears in its infinitive form but without "to." Since the main verb is "give" and the infinitive form of "give" is "to give," you would write "cow does give," not "cow does gives."

So, when you return to the inverted structure to form the question, nothing changes as far as the verb is concerned, so the proper way to write it is:

What does a cow give us?

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This is a SVA (subject-verb agreement) matter. Normally, you'd be right if the subject was singular. For instance, "He (singular subject) gives (singular verb) good advice (object)" is a grammatically correct sentence because the verb agrees with the subject. However, in your sentence "What does a gow give us?" the subject isn't "cow" but "what." At first glance, you'd say the cow is what's giving, but actually "what" is what's being given. If you had asked, "The cow gives us what?" then you can see how "gives" makes sense; the cow is the subject because it is giving something, albeit something so far unidentified. In your sentence, though, the answer to the question won't necessarily be milk or meat or leather. The answer is, quite plainly, what. What is what's being given.

PS: This probably sounds really nonsensical. If someone could add to my answer to clarify, it would be appreciated.

  • The subject of "What does a cow give us?" is "a cow". The word "what" is the object, but it is fronted because it is a wh-word. – sumelic Jul 2 '18 at 17:38
  • If you say, "Who is baking the cake" and turn it into a statement it becomes "Who {italics} is baking the cake." So "who" is the subject, yes? – Nathan M. Jul 2 '18 at 17:41
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    The subject isn't "what." The subject is "cow." "What" is the direct object pronoun. It appears at the beginning of the sentence because questions follow an inverted structure, but you know "what" is not the subject because it doesn't perform the action of the verb "does give"; "cow" does. It's the cow that "does give." Instead, "what" receives the action of the verb "give" by being that which the cow gives, meaning "what" is the direct object. – Billy Jul 2 '18 at 17:41
  • Yes, I agree with you. But how do you explain a question like "What was your name?" If you invert it and make it a statement, it becomes, "What {italics} was your name." – Nathan M. Jul 2 '18 at 17:43
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    "Who is banking the cake?" isn't analogous to "What does a cow give us?" In that example, "who" is the subject. "Who" is performing the action of baking. In the sentence at hand, "what" isn't performing the action of "does give." The cow is. The cow does give us something. That something is "what," the indirect object. – Billy Jul 2 '18 at 17:46

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