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There was/were a pen and three pencils...

There was a pen and three pencils on the table


There were a pen and three pencils on the table.

In this example, the singular noun must precede the plural noun. Which verb is the correct one?

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When a sentence begins with "There" and the choice of verb is "is/was" or "are/were," you simply restate the sentence with the actual subject(s) at the beginning. In this case, you would then say, "A pen and three pencils _were_ on the table." Or "There pencils and a pen were on the table." Clearly "was" would be wrong. "There" holds the place for the subject, which in this case is plural. This is quite different from an "either/or" situation, where the verb should agree with the noun or pronoun closer to it. E.g., "Either the pencils or the pen was on the table."

providencejim June 17, 2010, 7:40am

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Oops: my reply above contains an error. The third sentence should read, "Or 'Three pencils and a pen were on the table.'" Got my "there"s and "three"s mixed up.

providencejim June 17, 2010, 8:29am

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I disagree. This is one of those cases where sound matters. There IS a pencil and three pens. There ARE three pens and a pencil.

scyllacat June 19, 2010, 8:20am

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Scyllacat, have you seen using sound as an aid to subject-verb agreement in any guide? I will admit "There is a pencil and three pens" sounds right, but then a lot of things that might sound right can be wrong (note for example today how many people say something like "The job will be done by Alice and myself"--it must sound right to them).

providencejim June 19, 2010, 9:53am

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Jim M is correct. "[A] pen and three pencils" is the compound subject, and takes a plural verb.

douglas.bryant June 19, 2010, 1:17pm

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all is well

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ashish August 17, 2011, 6:55pm

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No, actually scyllacat is correct. Sound is often used in classes to determine the grammatical accuracy of a word or phrase. For example, an instructor sometimes says words in order to explain a grammar rule. Then the student hears these words. Then the instructor says more words of explanation, which the student also hears. Through the sound produced in this situation, a student learns about grammar.

BrockawayBaby August 17, 2011, 8:28pm

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Sarcasm will get you nowhere.
There is several examples of sound helping with grammar:
All of the following is wrong and sounds wrong:
"She are a good actress."
"He likes the way she say her lines."
"She says several things, which means that she want him to ask herself in a date."
"He do this."
"They having gone home together, sleep two together, which are feeling nice."
"In the morning, you know that which is fun that they do, having done it."

But the strange thing is, the above aforementioned story makes sense. It is clear what the two people have done. I suggest that we use sound to determine when something is wrong, but that we shouldn't be too strict because we can still get the meaning anyway.

BrockawayBaby August 17, 2011, 8:34pm

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Jim, glad you caught your there-three mistake because I got lost three, whoops, there for a minute. lol If we go by sound, what people are used to hearing & speaking will dominate the grammar world. "We is too going." "This is her." "I knowd y'all was absent." Where do we draw the line? When you study, learn, & practice proper grammar skills, certain sentences or phrases will suddenly sound incorrect to you that sounded correct to you at one time. For example, without even thinking about it, BrockawayBaby's second sentence, There is several examples..., sounded wrong the second I read it. lol Yes, some rules are more difficult than others, but let's not encourage ignorance just because we aren't 100% sure of something. It's not creativity vs. mechanics. It's creativity polished with mechanics. :)

SurvivalMode February 26, 2012, 6:07am

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Brockaway: "All of the following is wrong and sounds wrong:"

Well this certainly sounds wrong to me. I would always wriite:

All of the following<b> are</b> wrong and <b>sound</b> wrong:

John Gibson February 27, 2012, 9:57am

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BrockawayBaby (brilliant name - not on so brilliant with singular/plural which is his case in this argument) offers this:

Sarcasm will get you nowhere.
There is several examples of sound helping with grammar:
All of the following is wrong and sounds wrong:
"She are a good actress."
"He likes the way she say her lines."

Hey, Brockaway!

"There is ... examples "? "All of the following (examples) is wrong ..."? Your own sentences contain the same error as your examples - singular/plural confusion.

In the UK the television reporters do it all the time. The cold weather messes up their brains on outside broadcasts. I shouldn't lose any sleep over it, but it isn't correct.

"Their (plural people then) neighbour (one person then) lost 'their' house key".
This then means surely that they should be annoyed with their neighbour because now they can't get into their house because of his mistake.
But in the UK it could mean that the neighbour lost his own house key, ("their" is widely used to mean "his" or "her", very annoyingly) so they (plural therefore the people we started with) can ignore his (the singular neighbour's) problem if they like and leave him to sort it out. The word "their" is used to refer to anyone, singular and plural regardless, so half the time we don't know who is meant by "their".

So the consequences of getting this muddled up are more confusing and the results more devastating as those caused by the examples in the original point made above - whether to say there is or there are when there are two things there - "There are" is certainly correct. The French just say "Il y a ..." and the Germans "Es gibt ..." and there are no further worries! In English we have to be able to count as far as two to sort it out ...

Now how about when there are none at all? Singular or plural? "No one was there" or "No one were there"? We all know the answer. But it gets worse ...

another time ...

Brus February 27, 2012, 10:23am

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There ....... a book,a pen and three pencils on the tabble
A. Is
B. Are
C. Were
D. Was

Huyen February 27, 2017, 4:24am

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i think we should say there is instead of there are in this sentence:
near the bank, there ... a post office, a hospital and a school.
Am i right?

samurott March 15, 2017, 4:32am

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Yes     No