Is there any reasonable explanation (that is, not just "that's the way it is") as to why

"Who are the ones who go there?"

is grammatically correct, but

"Who go there?"

is not?

In the first sentence both "who" are followed by a verb in plural, and that's just fine.

In the second sentence the situation is similar, yet it's a mistake.


2 Answers 2


The question you quoted implies the speaker already knows that several/many people usually go there. The sentence combines "who are [they]" and "the ones who go" (= they), where both parts are clearly plural, in meaning and form.
(The way you tried to split it doesn't work.)

But when you ask the generic question "Who goes there?" you don't normally know in advance if the answer will be zero, one, or several (unless the question is rhetorical/sarcastic). Hence the singular "by default". Does it make sense to you?

This is only a rationalization, not proper language history. But the mechanism is the same in Latin (and its descendants) and German, meaning it has been used for a long time.

  • (1) Imagine you have just entered a room and saw your friends talking about something. One of you friends is finishing her sentence (your friends are talking about aircraft, but you don't know that): "They all go to the boneyard and stay there for good after they become too old." You really want to know who "they" in this sentence are. From "stay at boneyard for good" you infer that the subject is inanimate things, rather than humans or animals.
    – brilliant
    Jun 28, 2019 at 18:45
  • (2) You also know from "they" that the subject is plural. So how would you ask of your friends a question that will help you find out the subject of their conversation? "What goes to the boneyard after it becomes too old?" or "What go to the boneyard after they become too old?" or "Who go to the boneyard after they become too old?" or how?
    – brilliant
    Jun 28, 2019 at 18:45
  • @brilliant It doesn't matter if you know there are multiple people. The grammar of the sentence (in the second sentence) always uses Who goes there?, and never who go there? (If you construct a sentence with more than just those three words in that order, then you can use the plural.) Jun 29, 2019 at 0:05
  • @JasonBassford - "If you construct a sentence with more than just those three words in that order, then you can use the plural" - Then "Who go to the boneyard after they become too old?" must be correct. Not?
    – brilliant
    Jun 29, 2019 at 0:13
  • No. Those specific words are not sufficient. Here is an example of a sentence that would work: Who are those people in the graveyard? Jun 29, 2019 at 16:14

Without explicitly making a plural construction, who and which are singular:

  • Which is it?
  • Who is it?
  • Who goes there? (standard question of a sentry when approached)
  • I don't think this is correct. Your examples can be made plural: "Which are they?" "Who are they?" Which and who are not inherently plural or singular. I'd argue "Who go there?" in fact is grammatical. The only reason it sounds wrong is because we are used to the standard sentry's query and this sounds different.
    – TypeIA
    Jun 26, 2019 at 18:34
  • ell.stackexchange.com/questions/52038/is-who-singular-or-plural has good information. It seems "to be" had special status as one of the few, if only, verbs able to modify the grammatical number of "who" or "which" as a subject. I removed my downvote but I think the answer could still be improved.
    – TypeIA
    Jun 26, 2019 at 18:40
  • @TypeIA - Try it now.
    – J.R.
    Jun 26, 2019 at 18:48

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