The Grammarphobia Blog

You who, Mrs. Goldberg?

Q: I’m a language arts teacher in Florida who loves your blog—what fun! Now, my question. In these sentences, does the verb agree with “you” or “who”? (1) “You who have/has been so kind, I thank you.” (2) “You who cut/cuts through the veil of this mortal coil, guide us.”

A: The pronoun “who” can be singular or plural in number, so the choice of verb depends on whether “who” refers to one person or more. Examples: “Who are they?” … “Who is she?”

When it’s preceded by a noun or another pronoun, as in the “you who” construction you’re asking about, “who” takes its number (singular or plural) from the antecedent.

(An antecedent, as you know, is a word, phrase, or clause that determines what a pronoun refers to.)

In this case, the verb agrees with the antecedent “you,” as in “you who see me standing before you,” or “you who remember her will recall,” or “this is for you, who were so kind.”

We ran a post a couple of years ago that touches on this subject. But in case you or your class would like to know more, here’s a technical explanation, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED describes “who” in such constructions as a relative pronoun (similar to “that”) being used to introduce “a clause defining or restricting the antecedent and thus completing the sense.”

As we mentioned, the verb in these constructions agrees with the antecedent. 

The OED cites this example, from an essay written in 1717 by Alexander Pope: “those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.” (By way of illustration, the singular version would be “he moves easiest who has learn’d to dance.”)

We’ll invent a couple more singular and plural examples:

In subject position: “He who betrays you is not to be trusted” … “They who betray you are not to be trusted.”

In object position: “Don’t trust him who betrays you” … “Don’t trust them who betray you.”

We hope this helps, and all the best to your students!

They’re too young to remember this, but your question reminds us of the old TV show The Goldbergs. Molly Goldberg and her neighbors used to holler “Yoo-hoo!” to get one another’s attention.

The expression became the catchphrase of The Goldbergs, which ran on radio from 1929 to 1946, and on TV from 1949 to 1956.

Although the show undoubtedly helped popularize “yoo-hoo,” the usage had been around before The Goldbergs went on the air.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1924 issue of the journal Dialect Notes: “Yoo-hoo (call).” Oxford describes the usage as “a call made to attract attention,” and notes that a similar nautical expression, “yoho,” showed up in the 1700s.

We’ll end with an example from the Jan. 2, 1926, issue of the New Yorker: Yoo-hoo! When did your school let out?”

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