All he remembered was/were his multiplication tables.

DBlomgren

Senior Member
English, USA
I'd like a second opinion at least. Should the verb in this sentence be was or were?
All he remembered was / were his multiplication tables.

At first I was thinking that all is singular so it should be "All he remembered was...." But then I remembered that all is an expression of quantity and agrees with what it's describing, as in "All of the book is good" or "All of the books are good."

Here I think the verb should be were because be is acting as a linking verb. In this case "All" should agree with the subject complement, right? Other examples:

All he remembered was his name.
All he remembered were his multiplication tables.
 
  • DBlomgren

    Senior Member
    English, USA
    Hmm. Then, Swiss Pete, would you say:

    His multiplication tables was all that he could remember.
    or
    His multiplication tables were all that he could remember.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    I would say: His multiplication tables was all that he could remember.
    I wouldn't. "His multiplication tables were all that he could remember." The multipication tables are the subject, and that is a plural subject.
    However, "All he remembered was his multiplication tables" seems fine to me. "All" here means "the only thing". That is the subject, it's singular, and that makes "was" appropriate.
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Notional agreement may be seen, for example, when we treat a collective noun as a single entity or otherwise.
    For example, we can say The audience was/were impressed.

    But multiplication tables are clearly distinct in my view. To use this phrase followed by a singular verb to me is like saying his clothes was ruined by the mud.

    I suppose one could argue that the phrase is like physics, i.e. a single subject. In that case one might well say Multiplication tables is his least favourite subject.

    And if we have a sentence like this: When he was away, all he could think of was/were his wife and son, I think a case could be made for singular or plural, either as an example of notional agreement or the influence of all that/the one thing that as the words that come first.

    (cross-posted, I think, with Andygc)
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    In deciding whether all is singular or plural, you should try to understand what "all" means in the context available:

    All he remembered was / were his multiplication tables. Here all means "the only thing[1] from many things." therefore it is was.

    In "All were agreed that the CEO should have a bonus." All - The individuals severally, and is plural. The emphasis here is on seeing the whole as the sum of its parts.

    [1] or "set of things"
     

    panjandrum

    Occasional Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I wasn't convinced that "all" must have a singular verb.
    It seemed to me that the number of the verb must depend on what "all" is later declared to be. So I thought of an example with an obviously plural meaning for "all".
    Apples, bananas and pears were all that he could eat.

    And I tried out the sentence the other way round with "all he could eat" as subject and a plural verb.
    All he could eat were apples, bananas and pears.
    And I concluded that I wouldn't say that.
    I'd go for:
    All he could eat was apples, bananas and pears.

    Which convinces me that "all <relative clause>" takes a singular verb.

    Which doesn't mean that an unmodified "all" takes a singular verb. So "All were agreed..." "All the pigs were pink ..."

    "All the pigs he could see were pink."
    "All he could see was pink pigs."
     

    davyjones1000

    New Member
    english-states
    panjandrum

    in informal everyday speech I say "apples, bananas and pears is all I can eat because all other kinds of fruit give me indigestion".

    Is that wrong?:)
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    panj, you're actually agreeing with me and PaulQ but saying it differently. When 'all' means 'the only thing' and is the subject of the sentence, it is singular.

    "All were agreed..." 'all' does not mean 'the only thing'.
    "All the pigs were pink ..." ditto

    "All the pigs he could see were pink." ditto
    "All he could see was pink pigs." = '"the only thing he could see"
    :thumbsup:
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    I think is is far too prescriptive to say that a singular was must follow a sentence starting with all (however you define the only thing).
    There is a significant (though smaller) proportion of examples in the Google US corpus** (and even in Google ngram) of were where the following noun is plural.
    If you say All he could see was pink pigs, you may be regarding them as a herd of pink pigs. But if they are distinct pigs, why not were?
    However, I would agree that if you say or write the only thing <personal pronoun> could see, you will not often find a plural verb.

    Similar mixed usage is found when we have a sentence starting with What <personal pronoun> <verb> was/were. In fact, when the subject is plural, the main verb tends to be plural (What is needed from the left wing of university reform are programs that being to specify the steps of change.).

    **My search words were "[pp*] could see were". A typical example is All I could see were the flies crawling in and out of the comers of their eyes. The examples are from written English and spoken English may well be different.
     

    amatriciana

    Senior Member
    English - UK and US
    In deciding whether all is singular or plural, you should try to understand what "all" means in the context available:

    All he remembered was / were his multiplication tables. Here all means "the only thing[1] from many things." therefore it is was.
    I agree that if you interpret "all" as meaning "the only thing" then it is "was".
    But if you (just as validly!) interpret "all" as meaning "the only things", then it is "were".
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    I take your point: but first there is the annotation: "[1] or "set of things".

    Next, is "his multiplication tables" Which gives me the impression that "multiplication tables" are a discrete unit. Had it been the multiplication tables, I could have gone for the plural.

    However, that said, I suppose I agree.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    I think is is far too prescriptive to say that a singular was must follow a sentence starting with all (however you define the only thing).
    There is a significant (though smaller) proportion of examples in the Google US corpus** (and even in Google ngram) of were where the following noun is plural.
    If you say All he could see was pink pigs, you may be regarding them as a herd of pink pigs. But if they are distinct pigs, why not were?
    However, I would agree that if you say or write the only thing <personal pronoun> could see, you will not often find a plural verb.

    Similar mixed usage is found when we have a sentence starting with What <personal pronoun> <verb> was/were. In fact, when the subject is plural, the main verb tends to be plural (What is needed from the left wing of university reform are programs that being to specify the steps of change.).

    **My search words were "[pp*] could see were". A typical example is All I could see were the flies crawling in and out of the comers of their eyes. The examples are from written English and spoken English may well be different.
    I wasn't wishing to be prescriptive, and I had no doubt one could find examples with plural verbs. However, for my usage "All I could see were the flies crawling in and out of the comers of their eyes" is wrong and I would both write and say "All I could see was the flies crawling in and out of the comers of their eyes." Both flies and pigs are undoubtedly plural, I see them as neither herd nor cloud, but they are not the subject - 'all' is, and in my mind that is a singular subject. For a short while I thought perhaps I could see it as a plural subject when the things seen take multiple forms and hence 'all' could be argued to mean 'the only things'. I tried "All I could see were lakes, mountains and distant clouds", but that doesn't work for me either. "All I could see was lakes, mountains and distant clouds." There, that feels better already. Clearly, plural verbs in such sentences are acceptable to some, but not, so far, to me.
     

    amatriciana

    Senior Member
    English - UK and US
    I take your point: but first there is the annotation: "[1] or "set of things".

    Next, is "his multiplication tables" Which gives me the impression that "multiplication tables" are a discrete unit.Had it been the multiplication tables, I could have gone for the plural.

    However, that said, I suppose I agree.
    Yet in English our possessive pronouns don't in themselves imply anything about the number of things owned. It's always "his" whether it's "his thing" or "his things", "his nose" or "his eyes". Likewise with "the", it's "the boy" if singular and it's "the boys" if plural. I think your impression is maybe more influenced by how you personally think of the multiplication tables -- as a discrete unit as opposed to a raft of individual facts to memorize. I only say this because I myself think of the multiplication tables as 12 discrete units, each unit being a "page" of the times table for a fixed number (we only learnt the times tables up to 12 at school), so in the original sentence I would have gone with "were".
     
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