Grammar Tip – There Was or There Were

Jo’s question: “Which is correct? ‘There was lightning and thunder last night,’ or ‘there were lightning and thunder.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: This question relates to subject and verb agreement. When a sentence begins with there or here, the actual subject is considered to be the word or words following the verb. Use a singular verb if the actual subject is singular and a plural verb if the actual subject is plural.

Examples

There are three proposals to be written. (Proposals — the actual subjectis plural so the verb is are.)
Here is the signed agreement. (Agreement the actual subjectis singular so the verb isis.)
There was lightning last night. (Lightning is singular so the verb is was.)

When you see the word “and” in the subject, it is called a compound subject. Always use a plural verb with a compound subject.

Example

There were lightning and thunder last night. (Lightning and thunder form a compound subject so the verb is plural.)

Frankly, although this is grammatically correct, it sounds awkward. I would rewrite the sentence.

Example

We had thunder and lightning last night.

The same rule (when “and” is in the subject, the verb is plural) holds true even if the sentence does not start with there or here.

Example
Thunder and lightning are expected today.

Grammar Tip - There Was There Is

 

  • imgamer

    I understand your point about the compound subject being plural. I wonder what your opinion is about the rule that if a list (2 or more items) appear after There was/were, the verb should agree with the first item on that list. For example:
    There were two books, a pencil case and an apple in his bag.
    There was an apple, two books and a pencil case in his bag.

    So:
    There was a golden hen and a golden harp in the castle.
    OR:
    There were a golden hen and a golden harp in the castle. ???