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Are question words like "what" plural or singular?

What are you going to do in college?

Is the "what" asking about one thing only or multiple things? or both are possible?

Where are you going to take a trip for your vacation??

Is the "where" asking about one place only or multiple places? or both are possible?

How are you going to finish the project?

Is the "how" asking about one or multiple methods to finish the project? or both are possible?

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    Those question words are about unknowns, and they're not the subject of their sentences, so they aren't (yet) singular or plural. The answer to "where" will likely be an adverbial phrase, like "anywhere that's hot" or "to the Bahamas", so it won't have a number. The answer to "How" will always be an adverbial, like "quickly" or "by getting my roommate to help me", so number won't apply.
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 7:47
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    Both are possible. The reply may contain one or more college-pursuits, destinations or methods. Btw, you don't need 'take a trip' in the second question. 'Where are you going for your vacation?' is usual. Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 11:19
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    Although the answers may be singular or plural, singular is usual. However, that's a matter for a different sentence. As @gotube pointed out, these words aren't the subjects, so singular/plural doesn't apply. Here's an example diagram: You (subject) are going (verb) to finish the project (infinitive phrase - object) , how (adverb)? Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 16:34
  • @gotube "What" and "Where" are known as "interrogative pronouns". As other pronouns can be singular or plural (e.g. I vs We, He,She,It vs They, Thou vs You, Him vs Them etc), it would seem perfectly reasonable to ask what they are. And as you rightly point out "how" is adverbial. Your comment amounts to a very good answer. Why not post it as such?
    – WS2
    Commented May 7, 2022 at 19:24
  • @WS2 Thanks! My intent with that comment was to point out that asking about the number of "where" or "how" doesn't make sense, and that, by omission, asking about "what" is still a smart question, which is only comment-worthy. I didn't answer about the number of "what", which I think is the only one worth answering about.
    – gotube
    Commented May 10, 2022 at 0:40

1 Answer 1

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The words "what", "why", "how" and similar question words can be used in either plural or singular constructions. As people leaving comments have remarked, they are not the subjects of the sentences, nor indeed are they objects. Indeed they are mostly adverbs in such constructions, although they can also function as conjunctions, and in other ways. See Collins Dictionary on "why".

Some examples shoeing valid use in bothe singular and plural constructions:

  • What is Jack going to do in college?
  • What are the three of them going to do in college?
  • Where is Jane going for her vacation?
  • Where are Jane, Jack, and Susan going for their vacation?
  • How are we supposed to finish the project, now that Fred has left?
  • How am I supposed to finish the project, now that Fred has left?
  • Who is that girl in the red shirt?
  • Who are those girls in the red shirts?
  • When am I expected to finish?
  • When are we expected to finish?
  • Whether he knows it or not, Jim must comply.
  • Whether they know it or not, all of them must comply.

When the context does not make it clear if the subject is plural or not, it can be either. For example:

Where are you going tomorrow?

This could be asking about the plans of a single person, or of a group.

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    In some cases they are the grammatical subject. eg Who wants a present? or What just fell over? It seems to me that in these cases they always take a singular verb, even when the expected answer is plural.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 7, 2022 at 19:28
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    @Colin Fine I would think that when "Who wants a present?" is addressed to a group, inviting positive answers from multiple members, then "who" is plural. Or consider "Who were the responsible parties for the Civil War?" or "Who stood to Benefit from Ms Jones's death?" I think "who" is surely plural in the first case, and probably in the 2nd. But often the plural and singular forms are the same, so the difference is not detectable. But in the past tense "who were" is different from "who was" Consider "Who were the criminals ?*" vs "who was the criminal?" Or "Who are you people?" Commented May 7, 2022 at 19:44
  • you're right about Who were/are. I think there is a difference between the copula and other verbs. With a substantive verb I can't think of a case where you'd use a plural verb (consider "Who wants?" - the verb is necessarily singular). You said that "they are not the subjects of the sentences", and I'm wondering whether, in the case of the copula, that might actually be true.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 7, 2022 at 20:18
  • @ColinFine Re substantive verb in the plural. If I am speaking on behalf of two or more people expressing indignation, I might say "Who clean up the mess that you leave behind?"
    – WS2
    Commented May 8, 2022 at 6:56
  • @WS2: I don't think I would say that. I would say Who cleans up the mess, even if I knew there were several people.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 8, 2022 at 17:34

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