Who Is? Who Are? Who Cares?

In my last post I talked about “who” vs. “whom.” Now I’m going to address the subject of verb agreement with “who.” (If you got that little grammatical pun, 50 brownie points.) And yes, I will explain what I mean by that.

I see this particular misunderstanding of “who” usage most often in liturgical texts. I’m writing this on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, when, if you’re Orthodox, you probably heard the Great Prokeimenon:

Who is so great a God as our God? You are the God who works wonders.

But if your choir director or head chanter doesn’t understand the proper usage of verbs with “who,” you may have heard “the God who work wonders” instead.

How on earth does one tell which is correct?

Easy. Or, to quote Dylan Thomas, “Easy for Leonardo!”

A verb used with “who” as its subject needs to agree in person and number with the noun or pronoun that “who” refers to.

Got that?

In this case, “You are the God who works wonders,” “who” refers to “God,” not to “you.” Just disregard the first two words and listen to the phrase, “the God who works wonders,” and then it’s clear to the ear. “God” is third-person singular, so the proper verb form is “works.” He, she, it works. God works wonders.

Now if the sentence read:

It is you who work wonders,

“who” would refer to “you,” which is second-person plural (grammatically plural, regardless of how many persons are being addressed), and therefore the proper verb form is “work.” You work wonders.

Even if all this grammatical mumbo-jumbo is so much Greek to you, you know by ear that “God works wonders” and “You work wonders” are correct. So all you have to do is figure out which preceding noun or pronoun “who” refers to, and match the verb to that one.

Usually, “who” refers to the noun or pronoun immediately preceding it. But not always. Let’s look at another example from the same service:

O most high God, the Master and Fashioner of all that is, who fill all creation with Your majesty and uphold it with Your power:

Did you guess that “who” here refers to “Master and Fashioner”? Bzzz—wrong! The phrase between the commas is what’s called an appositive, a phrase describing the subject (here, “God”); it is neither here nor there with regard to “who.” Just wipe it from your mind and look at the sentence again:

O most high God, who fill all creation with Your majesty and uphold it with Your power:

Now what does “who” refer to? Clearly, to “God,” which, as we saw before, is third-person singular. BUT: In this case, “God” is being addressed, not referred to, and therefore the implicit subject is “you.” You could reword the sentence:

O most high God, you fill all creation . . .

without substantially changing the meaning. Therefore, in this case, “who” takes the verb form appropriate to “you,” which is “fill.”

Oh dear, I can see you scratching your head with a dazed look in your eyes. Let’s make it simpler:

If you can reword the sentence and replace the “who” in the sentence with “he” (or “she”), the verb should be singular, which generally means it will have an “s” on the end of it (unlike nouns, which are plural if they end in “s”: who wrote this language, anyway?). If you can replace “who” with “you” (or “we” or “they”), the verb should be plural.

Still baffling? Put your tricky examples in the comments and I’ll address them.

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One comment on “Who Is? Who Are? Who Cares?

  1. Whew. It’s a good thing I get this intuitively. Your soapbox has been getting a lot of wear lately. If you’re not careful, it might crowd out the other furniture! By the way, that analogy doesn’t work, if you try t o reconcile the two parts with each other—wearing down soapboxes makes them smaller. I can’t think what you could do to a tangible soapbox to make it inflate . . . But this is a metaphorical soapbox . . . er, look at the time! (awkward laugh) I’d better be off!

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