There was or there were

Thomas Tompion

Senior Member
English - England
I've read several threads on this topic, but none of them really answers the question I've been posed in my morning's reading of Christina Stead's The Man who loved Children.

Look at these two sentences, two pages apart in the book:

1. Then, there was the care of the large, old-fashioned house, the neglected grounds; and not only Sam's small zoo, but his other possessions and constructions, a pond, a rockery, aquaria, his museum, and so on.

2. There were excitement, fun, joy and even enchantment with both mother and father, and it was just a question of whether one wanted to sing, gallop about, and put on a performance ('showing off like all Pollitry,' said Henny), or look for mysteries ('Henny's room is a chaos,' said Sam).

Both sentences start there was/or were, and then comes a list. Yet one starts there was, the other there were. One of them sounds pretty odd to me. She's not the sort of writer to do this by mistake. Can you account for the difference?
 
  • hispanichistorian

    Member
    Wales and English
    There was is used in the singular. There were is used for plural words.

    EG
    There was one green duck by the pond.
    There were several green ducks by the pond.

    It seems like a misuse by accident really. The 2nd one reads strangely because of it saying there were rather than there was.
     

    Diddy

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    1. Then, there was the care of the large, old-fashioned house, the neglected grounds; and not only Sam's small zoo, but his other possessions and constructions, a pond, a rockery, aquaria, his museum, and so on.

    2. There were excitement, fun, joy and even enchantment with both mother and father, and it was just a question of whether one wanted to sing, gallop about, and put on a performance ('showing off like all Pollitry,' said Henny), or look for mysteries ('Henny's room is a chaos,' said Sam).

    I understand those sentences as follows:

    1. There was the care of the large, old-fashioned house, the neglected grounds...
    Here, the writer is talking about the care (just one thing), as all the remaining things of the "list" are adjectives describing the house, and other possessions.

    2. There were, excitement, fun, joy and even enchantment with...
    Here the writer is "listing" four common abstract nouns in the sentence.

    I hope you understand my explanation...
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    There was is used in the singular. There were is used for plural words.

    EG
    There was one green duck by the pond.
    There were several green ducks by the pond.

    It seems like a misuse by accident really. The 2nd one reads strangely because of it saying there were rather than there was.
    Hello Hispanichistorian,

    I know we say there was one duck, but there were several ducks.

    But do we say 1. There was Alfie, Bert, and Charlie, or 2. There were Alfie, Bert and Charlie? And if 1. why? Surely Alfie, Bert, and Charlie are three people. And which of the sentences, if either, is similar to the sentences in the title thread? That's my problem.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    1. Then, there was the care of the large, old-fashioned house, the neglected grounds; and not only Sam's small zoo, but his other possessions and constructions, a pond, a rockery, aquaria, his museum, and so on.

    2. There were excitement, fun, joy and even enchantment with both mother and father, and it was just a question of whether one wanted to sing, gallop about, and put on a performance ('showing off like all Pollitry,' said Henny), or look for mysteries ('Henny's room is a chaos,' said Sam).

    I understand those sentences as follows:

    1. There was the care of the large, old-fashioned house, the neglected grounds...
    Here, the writer is talking about the care (just one thing), as all the remaining things of the "list" are adjectives describing the house, and other possessions.

    2. There were, excitement, fun, joy and even enchantment with...
    Here the writer is "listing" four common abstract nouns in the sentence.

    I hope you understand my explanation...

    Yes, I do, thank you very much Diddy. You may well be right. My only worry is this: we say There were Alfie and Bertie when we want to say There they were, bold as brass, or whatever. But if we wish to explain who was at a party, say, do we put it There were Alfie and Bertie? Wouldn't we rather say There was Alfie and Bertie and Charlie and Duggie, and so on?
     

    Diddy

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Hi Thomas Tompion!!!

    Well... as far as I know, when listing more than one noun you have to use were, as:

    There were Alfie and Bertie and Charlie and Duggie.

    I really don't see in which cases we can use there was when enumerating more than one noun, no matter if you are talking about one party only.

    I hope I am not wrong, as English is not my native language, and what I am now saying is just what I have learnt from my grammar classes. If I am wrong, I will be more than glad to know if there is another way of saying this.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Hi Thomas Tompion!!!

    Well... as far as I know, when listing more than one noun you have to use were, as:

    There were Alfie and Bertie and Charlie and Duggie.

    I really don't see in which cases we can use there was when enumerating more than one noun, no matter if you are talking about one party only.

    I hope I am not wrong, as English is not my native language, and what I am now saying is just what I have learnt from my grammar classes. If I am wrong, I will be more than glad to know if there is another way of saying this.
    Unfortunately, life is not as simple as that at all, Diddy.

    I wouldn't naturally say there were Alfie and Bertie and Charlie and Duggie, unless I meant There they were! All together! or whatever.

    Try Googling There was snow and ice (6K hits) against there were snow and ice (1.3K hits and many of those to be discounted because followed by a plural noun - e.g. there were snow and ice conditions...).
     

    Diddy

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    OK Thomas Tompion... I'll be keeping an eye on this thread to see any other explanation from which I can learn more about this subject...
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    But, Ewie, even in the present we say:

    1. There is Alfie and Bertie and Charlie and Duggie.

    rather than

    2. There are Alfie and Bertie and Charlie and Duggie.

    unless we are pointing them out, saying there they are. Or do we?
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Maybe if I was telling a joke to the editors of the OED I'd start There are an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman in the pub ... [unlikely, mind]

    But if I was telling the joke to real people I'd most definitely start There's an Englishman, an Irishman etc.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I'd have seen "was" as more likely in your second example, TT; and I would use a singular verb with your list of names (Lexi and I have disagreed on singular vs plural verbs before;)).

    I think both are examples of there followed by a "compound subject whose first element is singular": see here for a discussion.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Yes, Loob, thank you for the link. It doesn't, however, get us round the problem of my title sentences from the same author.

    Diddy suggested that in sentence 1. it was the care of all those things which dictated the singular verb-form, but I don't think it is that, because Henny doesn't take care of Sam's things - they aren't on speaking terms - certainly not the zoo and the pond. I think that sentence falls into the famous category of a "compound subject whose first element is singular'.

    What of the second sentence? I wondered if the plural form was used to show the plural nature of the individual elements, excitement, fun, joy and even enchantment. Plural because experienced differently with each parent - Stead is at pains to point out that the children's experience with each parent is very different, but they have fun with each. Could it be that the writer wants you feel the force of that were, to stress the different excitements, the different sorts of fun, the different joys. Odd she didn't put the nouns in the plural too, don't you think?
     

    anothersmith

    Senior Member
    English, U.S.
    1. Then, there was the care of the large, old-fashioned house, the neglected grounds; and not only Sam's small zoo, but his other possessions and constructions, a pond, a rockery, aquaria, his museum, and so on.

    2. There were excitement, fun, joy and even enchantment with both mother and father, and it was just a question of whether one wanted to sing, gallop about, and put on a performance ('showing off like all Pollitry,' said Henny), or look for mysteries ('Henny's room is a chaos,' said Sam).

    This may be duplicative of what others have written.

    In the first sentence, the focal point is "care of" - followed by a list of items that needed care. To my ear, that calls for the singular form of the verb.

    In the second sentence, the focal points are the nouns "excitement, fun, joy, and even enchantment." These call for the plural form.

    Perhaps that's a shallow explication, but I've tried to give you my gut impression (which I find is often the most correct).
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    [...]In the second sentence, the focal points are the nouns "excitement, fun, joy, and even enchantment." These call for the plural form.

    But anothersmith, which would you choose between? -

    1. There was snow and ice on the roads today.

    or

    2. There were snow and ice on the roads today.

    Google suggests that most people would choose 1.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    TT, I think the two cases are different.

    In snow and ice, the two elements are so conjoined as to form, for practical purposes, a single concept. The same is true of, say, fish and chips. But it's not true of "excitement, fun, joy, and even enchantment". Your author, I think, had a choice between "were" (plural subject) and "was" (there+compound subject whose first element is singular), and chose "were", presumably to emphasise the multiplicity of the delights available from the parents.

    Personally, I'd have chosen "was". But I'm no author ;)
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Yes. I'd have chosen 'was' too, Loob. What did you think of my theory (post 15) about the difference between the parents rendering the excitements etc. more plural in feel? Purest hogwash? I think it may be.
     

    Lexiphile

    Senior Member
    England English
    This time, Loob, we're only going to disagree a little bit.
    In the case of the gas station and the grocery, I would also use a singular verb. Whether this is because of all the extra words cluttering the sentence and moving the grocery so far away from the verb, or because they simply don't seem so parallel as to form a "group," I don't know.

    But if someone were to ask me "who have we got who can carry out this work?" I'm sure I would say "well, there are Peter, Paul, Mary and Simon, all sitting around on their hands." (I've taken the "ands" out of the list, since they seem irrelevant in this matter)
     

    Diddy

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    This time, Loob, we're only going to disagree a little bit.
    In the case of the gas station and the grocery, I would also use a singular verb. Whether this is because of all the extra words cluttering the sentence and moving the grocery so far away from the verb, or because they simply don't seem so parallel as to form a "group," I don't know.

    But if someone were to ask me "who have we got who can carry out this work?" I'm sure I would say "well, there are Peter, Paul, Mary and Simon, all sitting around on their hands." (I've taken the "ands" out of the list, since they seem irrelevant in this matter)

    Totally in agreement with lexiphile's and anothersmiths' posts.

    About snow and ice, as Loob said, is the same case as fish and chips, for British people and bacon and eggs for Americans. They are compound subjects expressing closely related ideas...and they require a singular verb. But, this is neither the same case of the sentence No.2 of THomas Tompion's post No.1 nor the example about the gasoline station and the grosery store. Both of them need plural verb, as has been stated here for some of us.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    This time, Loob, we're only going to disagree a little bit.
    In the case of the gas station and the grocery, I would also use a singular verb. Whether this is because of all the extra words cluttering the sentence and moving the grocery so far away from the verb, or because they simply don't seem so parallel as to form a "group," I don't know.

    But if someone were to ask me "who have we got who can carry out this work?" I'm sure I would say "well, there are Peter, Paul, Mary and Simon, all sitting around on their hands." (I've taken the "ands" out of the list, since they seem irrelevant in this matter)
    I agree Lexi, but which would you say if you cut out the all sitting around on their hands?
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    In the topic sentences, I think the care of in the first makes it very difficult indeed to accept a plural verb. Whatever the reality of the care in relation to each (see TT's explanation in post #15), the sentence as presented has a singular object and requires a singular verb.

    There were the care of ... :(

    I have some sympathy for the view (also post #15) that there were is used deliberately in the second sentence to emphasise that these pleasures were separate rather than with mother and father together. The plural verb attracts attention and when followed by both mother and father the separateness is, I think clear.


    As for Alice, Bob, Charlie and Dave - I can't imagine saying There are A, B, C & D. It would be there is.
    I could rationalise this by suggesting that I would only use such a construction while scratching my head and listing them kind of slowly and individually. Rather like There is Alice; there is Bob; there is Charlie; and there is Dave.
    But I would be deluding myself.
     
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