Language as a concept really presents itself as a mystery. The way that it is intertwined with culture and provides a record of the flow of time, combined with the fact that words can be traced back millennia to languages no longer spoken, really make language an interesting topic. Learning a new language can be a great way to make yourself more relatable and marketable in a constantly diverse world. However, learning a language can also be extremely daunting due to the fact that not only do you need to learn that language’s vocabulary, subject-verb agreement, and sentence structure, you also have to tackle its grammatical concepts.
English grammar is part of what makes learning English so difficult. At the end of the day, it seems like English often breaks more of its own rules than it follows, leaving irregular forms, especially when it comes to plural nouns, seeming more normal than the words that actually follow grammatical rules. English lends itself to several common grammar mistakes that beginners and experienced English speakers alike make consistently throughout written and spoken communication.
In this article, let’s explore the pronoun “who,” learn its proper use, how to create its plural forms, look for its synonyms, and learn its etymology and context.
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The first step in really understanding a word is to actually learn what a word means. Often, the best method for finding the meaning of a word is to find its dictionary definition. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word who can be defined as “what or which person or persons —used as an interrogative,” or “the person or persons that.” A secondary definition is that it can be used as a function word to introduce a relative clause, used especially in reference to persons.
A note is added by Merriam Webster that states that the relative pronoun who is “used by speakers on all educational levels and by many reputable writers, though disapproved by some grammarians, as the object of a verb or a following proposition.” In most contexts, the objective case of this word is actually “whom,” which will be discussed shortly.
The thing that makes the English language so difficult to learn is the fact that it so often breaks its own rules. For example, in creating the past tense of verbs, you typically add “-d” or “-ed” to create the past tense. However, several words actually break this rule and create their own irregular past tenses. For example, the verb “to run” does not add a suffix; instead, it completely changes its spelling. It gets even more confusing when you consider singular verbs and plural verbs.
This is the case with nouns very often as well, whether they’re collective nouns or singular nouns. While most nouns just add “-s” or “-es” to create a plural form, the plural of some nouns is irregular and involves changing spellings. However, the plural of who is still who. That is what makes this word irregular; it does not actually have a plural form, and to use it in a plural context (e.g., who are they?), you would still just use the singular pronoun.
Who vs Whom for a Group?
The question of who vs. whom is one of the most asked questions in English grammar, and it is quite often used incorrectly. The correct usage of the word “whom” is in the context of the objective case, or when the personal pronoun is used to refer to the object of a sentence rather than the subject. So you need to look at the subject of a clause to figure out which to use. So, the rule to follow is that if you could substitute an object pronoun (such as him, her, or them) rather than a subject pronoun (he, she, they), you would use the word whom.
For example, “my father, who (he) was a lawyer” is correct because the subject of the sentence is replaced with the subject pronoun “he.” “Whom do you say that I am?” is also correct because the answer to the question is, “We say that you are him,” not, “we say that you are he,” replacing the subject with the objective pronoun “him.” Another example is saying something like “Whomever could that be?” because you would answer, “It’s them.”
Is Who a Singular or Plural Pronoun?
Who can be both a singular form or the plural form, as mentioned above. You would say, “who are they?” when referring to a group of people, just as accurately as you can say “who is she?” which can make the plurality a little confusing.
Can Who’s Be Used for Plural?
The word “who’s” is actually a contraction meaning “who is,” and it is not the plural of any word. So at the end of the day, no, you should not use the contraction “who’s” to refer to the plural form of the pronoun who. Try to think about this in terms of other interrogative pronouns, like “where’s.”
The History and Origin of the Word
One of the best ways to understand a word is to learn where it came from. A word’s etymology can reveal a lot about the changes a word has gone through to get to where it is today in modern English. According to EtymOnline.com, the word who originated in English in the Old English language during the medieval times and the original word was “hwa,” also meaning who. That word, in turn, came from the Old Saxon and Proto-Germanic roots so common in pronouns and verbs.
While the majority of nouns in English actually come from ancient languages such as Latin or Greek, the majority of pronouns and verbs (especially those with irregular forms) actually come from more modern western European languages.
Examples of the Word in Context
Another great way to learn how to use a word is to explore the word being used correctly. Either reading the word in its proper context or hearing someone else use it in conversation. Here are some common examples of the word who in context:
“Did you see who that was in New York City?”
“Who ran the fastest today?”
“Who are they?”
Synonyms for Who
The word who, being such a specific pronoun, does not actually have any synonyms.
Kevin Miller is a growth marketer with an extensive background in Search Engine Optimization, paid acquisition and email marketing. He is also an online editor and writer based out of Los Angeles, CA. He studied at Georgetown University, worked at Google and became infatuated with English Grammar and for years has been diving into the language, demystifying the do's and don'ts for all who share the same passion! He can be found online here.