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The situation is that:

We've already read three English novels.

Which is the correct question for that situation?

  1. Who has already read three English novels?

  2. Who have already read three English novels?

Or could both be correct?

Please also provide the grammatical reasons for your answers.

  • Sorry, I do not understand your question. Will you please re-formulate it? For otherwise this question will soon be down-voted. – Megadeth Aug 1 '14 at 6:45
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    Who have/has already read three English novels?. If the asker assumes one person, put has and if more than one, have goes. – Maulik V Aug 1 '14 at 6:51
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    I strongly suspect this is a case that could show BrE/AmE distinctions. While I have no grammatical reasons for it, I would never ever in my life ask a question beginning "Who have...", no matter how many affirmative responses I were expecting. – WinnieNicklaus Aug 6 '14 at 21:26
  • @WinnieNicklaus Are you saying this as a BrE or AmE speaker? – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Aug 8 '14 at 19:09
  • @Gilles, sorry, I should have specified -- I speak AmE. – WinnieNicklaus Aug 11 '14 at 21:41
21
+100

The OP's question involves the topic of interrogative pronouns (e.g. "who" and "what") and the question of whether they could be considered to be singular or plural.

In general, the interrogative pronoun "who" takes the default value of singular; and when it does take the value of singular, its question can allow both singular and plural answers. And so, that's why we often see questions using the default singular (that is, singular subject-verb agreement).

But when the speaker is expecting only a plural answer, then the speaker could use a plural override when forming their question -- but usually that is not obligatory, and usually the speaker can still use the default singular in their question. But, sometimes there are exceptions, when the plural override is obligatory, and that obligatory plural override often occurs when the grammar of the question requires or strongly prefers a plural verb (e.g. a predicative complement realized by a plural noun phrase).

So, with that as a grammatical background, let's look at the OP's context for those candidate questions. The OP's context is described as:

The situation is that: We've already read three English novels.

where I'm assuming that two or more of the addressees have read at least 3 novels. It is possible that the "we" includes only the speaker and one other person, but I'd think it more feasible that there are three or more people involved here (e.g. a classroom with more than one teacher and two students). The rest of my post will work with that assumption: there is a speaker and at least two addressees.

If the speaker doesn't really know whether the answer will be singular or plural, or is willing to expect either a singular or plural answer, then the speaker will (in general) use the default singular for their question:

1) Who has already read three English novels?

because that allows both a singular and a plural answer.

But if the speaker expects that more than two (students) will respond in the affirmative, then, often the speaker might choose to use the optional plural override:

2) Who have already read three English novels?

because the speaker is expecting to get two or more affirmative answers. But, this is optional to the speaker; the speaker can still use the default singular version, because this is not one of the exceptions that I had mentioned earlier.

ANSWER: So, to answer the OP's questions:

Which is the correct question for that situation? Or could both be correct?

for the specific candidate questions, it seems that both versions could be considered to be grammatical for that given context. It would be up to the speaker as to which one they would want to use.

= = = = = SOME VETTED GRAMMATICAL INFO = = = = =

OP asked:

Please also provide the grammatical reasons for your answers.

For more information on this topic, there is the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), pages 505-6.

Related excerpt from CGEL pages 505-6:

(d) Interrogatives

In general, the interrogative pronouns who and what take the default value of singular. Compare:

[19]

  • i.a. Who wants some more ice-cream? - - - b. What remains to be done?

  • ii. Which (of these) is/are yours?

There is no presupposition in [i] that only one person wants some more ice-cream or that only one thing remains to be done: the default singular allows for either singular or plural answers. In [ii], with determinative which as fused determiner-head, we have a singular or plural verb according to whether the answer is presupposed to be singular or plural.

The default singular values for who and what can, however, be overridden when there is a presupposition that the answer is plural:

[20]

  • i. What are going to be the deciding factors?

  • ii. Who haven't yet handed in their assignments?

  • iii. Who have excelled themselves in this year's coxed pairs?

  • iv. What have pointed ears and long tails?

In [i] the override is obligatory: this case is similar to those discussed for fused relatives such as [18.i], with the plural PC the deciding factors forcing a plural construal of what.

A likely context for [20.ii] is one where I'm addressing a group of students and assuming that a plurality of them haven't handed in their assignments; singular hasn't would be possible (but without indicating any expectation of a plural answer and favouring singular assignment if there is only one each).

In [20.iii], coxed pairs involve three people (two rowers and the cox), so the presupposition is again that the answer is plural. The reflexive has to be plural, and this favours a plural verb.

Finally, [iv] presupposes a generic bare plural as answer, e.g. foxes, but the motivation for a plural override is relatively small since the answer could be given in the form of a generic singular, e.g. a fox.


There's also some related information in the older 1985 reference grammar by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, Svartvik, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985 Quirk et al.). On page 371, footnote [a]:

[a] Who has both singular and plural reference, but when neither is explicit in the linguistic context, singular concord is the unmarked term. Thus, even though several voices are heard outside, the natural question will be Who's there? rather than ?* Who're there?

Note that the ?* symbol means: tending to unacceptability, but not fully unacceptable. Also, on page 756, footnote [a]:

[a] . . . Similarly, interrogative who and what as subjects normally take a singular verb even when the speaker has reason to believe that more than one person or entity is involved: Who is making all that noise? However, a plural verb may be used if other words in the sentence indicate that a plural subject is expected in the answer (Who have not received their passes?). . . .


EDITED: As a commenter has mentioned, there are also echo questions, where the "who" question can easily use a plural verb. For example:

  • A: "That gorgeous blonde girl that just moved in across the street, and the redhead that you're too shy to talk to, and also that girl who's always trying to beat you up on the playground, they are coming to your birthday party."

  • B: "Who are coming to my party?"

Or perhaps the simpler example as given by the commentator:

  • A: "They have done it."

  • B: "Who have done it?"


Here's an example borrowed from a comment in a related thread, where a plural verb might be obligatory:

  • "Who haven't faced each other in the competition yet?"
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    +1 Very informative - as well as a nice read. I think maybe another common context for plural who or what, is probably echo questions: A: They have done it. B: Who have done it? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Aug 10 '14 at 23:04
  • @Araucaria Apologies for the echo comment elsewhere. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 5 '15 at 22:29
  • @EdwinAshworth Can't see it, but if you wrote it, it can't be but helpful, so no worries! :) And for that reason, definitely don't delete it! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Mar 5 '15 at 22:38
  • @Araucaria I spend a lot of time wishing questions had appeared on ELL (or not at all) rather than ELU. But this is surely ELU material (though of course it would be unthinkable to deprive ELL contributors of the important principles discussed). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 5 '15 at 22:56
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Who has already read three English novels?

Who is the unspecified grammatical subject of the verb that follows and the usage is to have the verb in the singular. I do say it is based on common usage and not sustained by a grammatical rule.

Theoretically, if we ask the question we do not know in advance how many individuals will be concerned and the singular is, in a manner of speaking, a "by default option":

It is also the correct usage when we expect the answer to include several individuals:

Example in context:
The whole family is visiting for the weekend, that'll be 19 people altogether and I say we'll go and pick them up at the station or the airport, so I ask:

Who's coming by train and who's coming by plane?

I could say:

Who are those coming by train?

which would be a grammatically different question because it specifies the subject: those represents all the people (who are) coming by train, it is plural, therefore the plural agreement for be.

There are multiple ways one can specify the subject:

Who among you are better than average drivers?
Who among you have already read three English novels?

Quoting Quirk & al's A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, p.756:

[I]nterrogative who and what as subjects normally take a singular verb even when the speaker has reason to believe that more than one person or entity is involved: Who is making all that noise? However, a plural verb may be used if other words in the sentence indicate that a plural subject is expected in the answer (Who have not received their passes?)

So the above sentence:

Who Has Sampled Their Aquatic Pets In The Kitchen?

could also be rephrased as:

Who have sampled their aquatic pets in the kitchen?

their specifying that a plural subject is expected in the answer.

If the verb implies a plural subject (an action one does not usually do on their own) I will either leave the unspecified who or specify if I'm bothered using the verb in the singular.

Example in context:
I come upon a street fight and I want to know who is involved. I have two options :

Who's fighting over there? (unspecified subject)
Who are the people fighting over there? (specified subject)

Note that in my sentence I use the same rule, if who is used in an indirect question :

I want to know who is involved in the fight.

  • Is peotry really an authoritive source for standard language dynamics? I mean I cold use Shakespeares Sonettes but I am not sure they are valid English in a normal conversation. – Sammaye Aug 8 '14 at 17:22
  • @Sammaye: Authoritative, yes, it's a line that will come to mind to quite a lot of people. But it's an example among plenty of others, and it's easy to find quite a lot of examples from very contemporary sources. – Laure Aug 8 '14 at 17:31
  • I would personally prefer one of these other examples, I definitely don't speak in poems. I know of no English speaker who does intentionally, unless they have a serious mental defect. – Sammaye Aug 8 '14 at 17:32
  • Well there are already a lot provided, with the links, I can add some more. Poetry is also a means a of expression. here we need written ones that can be checked, I don't intend people to trust me on what I say. – Laure Aug 8 '14 at 17:40
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    It should be noted that the distinction @Giles makes between a capital and lowercase w is very significant in analyzing search results; just reviewing a sample of the search results shows that the lowercase form more commonly lends itself to situations where "who have read" is grammatical because context pluralizes the "who": Considering, for instance, those authors *who have read* Faulkner. I would consider the "Who haven't yet..." example to be non-grammatical because "who" is by default considered in the singular unless otherwise appropriate in context. – Pockets Aug 8 '14 at 22:58
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Only option 1 is correct.

-Who here has been to France before?
-He has.
-I have.

Maybe both are correct in the other guys' dialects, but certainly in British English, only your first option is correct. "Who here have read...?" is wrong.

Examples of when you might hear "who have" together? When using the present perfect progressive (I/we/you/they have been doing).

"The three students, who have been living in England for the last four years, were attacked last Saturday."

"Who have you been cheating on me with, all this time?"

  • 2
    You should make it clear that your two examples do not deal with OP's case. The question asked covers more ground than just have or has. I think OP's example is just one example and the question asked is in order to know if who agrees with the verb when who is subject of this verb. Of course saying only option 1 is correct is correct in my opinion. – Laure Aug 8 '14 at 13:29
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    "Who have you been cheating on me with, all this time?" is confusing because it's not have because of the progressive, it's have because of the you. It's a rearrangement of the grammar of "You have been cheating on me with whom, all this time?" (Which is also why it is technically incorrect, and might be corrected to "Whom have you been cheating on me with, all this time?" or "With whom have you been cheating on me, all this time?", except that few people care about the objective case of who anymore.) – SevenSidedDie Aug 8 '14 at 18:12
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    Hi. @F.E. here are some more examples from google: google.co.uk/search?q=allintext:%22who+here+has+*%22 I'm sorry I never included any references, however I am new here and noticed other users haven't done so either and you haven't down voted them for not doing so. If you look above, I think Laure has explained it perfectly. I hadn't seen her response as I was writing mine. – Adam Aug 8 '14 at 22:19
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    @F.E. If you want to know who still hasn't handed in their assignment, you would ask: "Who hasn't yet handed in their assignment?", otherwise, it sounds like I've missed the first half of a statement: "Those of you who haven't already handed in your assignment, you have until Friday to do so" or "Any students who haven't yet handed in their assignments should do so as soon as possible". Laure has explained the reason why in her post. If you want to carry on asking "who have..?", that's fine. I'm just saying you won't hear a native say it unless they're doing it consciously for comedic effect. – Adam Aug 8 '14 at 22:59
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    @F.E. What I said was certainly not offensive and if you know it to be wrong because you've heard natives say "Who have...?", then why ask the question, in the first place? Anyway, this really isn't worth arguing over. I hope someone has given you the answer you're looking for, in this thread. Have a good evening. – Adam Aug 8 '14 at 23:47
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They're both correct, but have different implications.

Who has already read three English novels?

This is asked if the asker has no particular expectations of the audience. (Or alternately, expects everyone to reply negatively.) For example, an English teacher in Japan might ask this at the start of a semester.

Who have already read three English novels?

The second question connotes an expectation that there will we be multiple respondents who will say yes. The asker might ask this at a literature discussion event.

  • I think the problem is that this is vague in native English; in the UK I would not expect your answer but I can see how in other areas, of possibly the world (taking other languages into account), your answer is perfectly valid – Sammaye Aug 5 '14 at 7:23
  • I'd like to think that one's personal experience can overcome cultural effects on the learning of foreign languages, but I have to agree with you. Despite having read many books written by authors from the UK, US, and other English-speaking countries, I cannot discount the possibility that I'm seeing differences where native speakers may not. – LiveMynd Aug 5 '14 at 7:32
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    Could you please provide authoritative examples from native speakers of cases when who as subject question word is followed by a verb in the plural? I have never ever this case. The only ones I have met came from non native speakers of English. – Laure Aug 8 '14 at 13:23
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    As a non-native speaker, I find “Who among you have already read …” acceptable, but not “Who have already read …”. Can you point to actual usage of the unadorned question word who as a subject of a plural verb? – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Aug 8 '14 at 19:06
  • @Gilles As a native speaker, I second that. Though, I'm not sure precisely what the grammatical rules are. – Phil Frost Aug 8 '14 at 19:21
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Disclaimer: I do not actually reference materials, I am natively English and hail from the UK itself as such I am using my own knowledge of my own language to answer.

Both sentences are valid in almost every situation, however, I agree with @LiveMynd in that if I were to ask this question I would have different expectations as to the response, however, they are not required nor assumed by default.

Let's have an example:

Who have read three books?

3 people have read three books

and:

Who has read three books?

1 person has read three books

while assuming you are talking about many individuals. It does feel as though if I were to put myself into the shoes of asking this question that "has" would imply a rare show of hands while "have" would imply, possibly, a large coverage.

But, to reiterate, this is not something that, in my view, is considered standard English.

To go back on what I said earlier:

Who are reading this book?

is correct to me but it talks about a different tense than "has"/"have" as shown by the present tense verb "reading":

Who are/is reading Harry Potter?

3 people are reading Harry Potter

would typically, in my view, be said to a book club meeting in the present tense, while you would ask:

Who have/has read Harry Potter?

for the past tense to the same group. "have" and "has" are extremely interchangeable from my own experience in this case, for example:

Who have/has witnessed three crimes?

You can see how it can be used for many different verbs in the past tense.

So to contradict what I originally said to @Giles: yes I do believe, after thinking a lot more about it, that have/has and are/is along with many others are interchangable and this is actually a generalisation, not an exception to the rule.

  • Can anyone explain why there would be a downvote? I merely thought of my own native English here, not sure what else I can do – Sammaye Aug 5 '14 at 6:53
  • You should not expect a comment from a downvoter. That's how this site works! That's how I got -1 down here. – Maulik V Aug 5 '14 at 7:04
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    @MaulikV I din't ask the downvoter for a comment, I asked for an explanation from someone who might know. If the downvoter wanted to fullfill the purpose of this site by sharing his/her insight then that is their own choice; however, I did not ask for the downvoter to comment – Sammaye Aug 5 '14 at 7:19
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    @MaulikV - Some downvoters elect to leave a comment, some don't. I do wish you would stop answering these comments with sarcastic remarks like, "That's the way this site works." Just because you've had several of your answers downvoted sans comment doesn't mean you need to start painting the entire community with one broad brush – that strikes me as petty and childish. – J.R. Aug 9 '14 at 22:49
0

It depends on whether you are talking about one or more people. When talking about one person, you would use 'who has' but when talking about more than one, you would use 'who have'.

Examples:

I know Peter who has been very kind to me.I know Peter and Jane who have been very kind to me.

0

I myself think it would be correct to say who has because there must be one person at least who has done that. I clarify. When we hear knocking at the door we ask this question: Who is knocking at the door? Because there must be one at least and there can be more. And because questions always come before answers and we don't know if the answer subject will be plural it is more correct to use the singular form. I am a teacher. I sometimes use a sentence to ask questions on its different parts. Concerning the subject I suppose we must use the singular form because we are supposed not to know the answer before asking the question. Meanwhile grammatically speaking it is correct when we use the plural form because the answer is plural, But in use it's correct to use the singular form.

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