June 17, 2005

A Grammatical Question

My husband and I are fighting. No it isn't a debate that's answer will hurt the marriage either way. We both are sure we're correct however, but after pouring through Strunk & White, the MLA and Chicago Manuals of Style, and my favorite grammar text English Grammar for Students of German, we still haven't found an answer.

What? Why are you looking at me funny? Don't most people have grammar arguments and have to go to their favorite reference books for assistance?

So what say you all? Which do you think is correct?

"Once upon a time, there was a king, a queen and a knight..."


"Once upon a time, there were a king, a queen and a knight..."

The closest we've found to an answer comes from one of my alma mater's UDel and essentially says that we're both kind of right.

Q. Which is correct? Long ago there was a king and a queen who had twelve sons. Long ago there were a king and a queen who had twelve sons.

A. This is an interesting question. If native English speakers were writing this sentence, they would probably observe the logical plural subject and use "were" as the verb. When speaking the sentence, however, most speakers would say "was." There is a strong tendency among English speakers to use "was" after the referential "there." This is especially the case when we have two singular nouns joined by "and" (a king and a queen).

Your example sentence has a feeling of informality, sounding like the beginning of a children's fairy tale. To me, it sounds more natural (in spoken form) to say, "Long ago there was a king and a queen . . ." even though there is a logical plural subject.


I think was sounds right, but I think were is right.

I could kind of see how it would make sense for there to be some rule that supports pairing a grouping of singular nouns-as opposed to one plural noun-with a singular verb, but I've never actually heard of such a rule.

Posted by: nina at June 17, 2005 06:29 PM

Could I get away with saying... it depends on the story...?

Posted by: Blair at June 17, 2005 07:13 PM

"...there was a king, a queen and a knight..."

Seems I remember the verb has to agree with one of the group, not the group as a whole.

Hope that's your answer too! LOL

Posted by: melissa at June 17, 2005 07:21 PM

"Standing in the driveway were Jason, Alex and Brian ..."

"Standing in the foyer were Jordana, Blair and Melissa ..."

"Once upon a time, there were a Solomon Island Eclectus and a congo grey ..."

"Once upon a time, there was a handsome little boy, a beautiful little girl, and a darling baby girl ..."

In context, I think I might go for the "was".

Regardless of agreement, in the storytelling context, the "was" might give immediacy to the existence of things.

Properly, though, the "were" would be more appropriate.

"There was a king, a queen and knight, once upon a time" doesn't read so well.

Posted by: Janis at June 17, 2005 07:58 PM

"Were" sounds correct to me.

"Once upon a time, a king, a queen, and a knight lived in the land of Xyzzy" avoids the problem, and may be useful in maintaining domestic harmony.

Posted by: Tom Jackson at June 18, 2005 04:37 AM

From my college grammar book: Depending on their meanings in each particular sentence, collective nouns...may take a singular or plural verb.

And the argument sounds completely normal to me.

Posted by: nic at June 18, 2005 07:35 AM

My gf pointed me to this question, so I suspect she'll be chiming in as well if she hasn't already (we both retired to our seperate computers, so it's a typing race now).

I consulted the 8th edition of my Harbrace College Handbook, chapter 6 (Agreement) and that chapter opens up with:
"Make a verb agree in number with its subject; make a pronoun agree in number with its antecedent," with the following examples:
SINGULAR The list of items was long.
PLURAL The lists of items were long.

The sticky part, I think, comes when one realizes you are listing the constituent parts of a singular family unit, and an American would recognize that subject as singular (as opposed to British English which would recognize it as plural). In other words, had your sentence started, "Once upon a time there ______ a royal family," Americans would agree the proper verb would be was, while those who speak British English would treat it as plural and use were.

How's that for a non-answer?

Posted by: Victor at June 18, 2005 07:51 AM

Mr. Jackson has hit upon the solution. Avoid the doubtful construction.

Posted by: Janis at June 18, 2005 09:10 AM

Blair also has a good point; if the king, queen, and knight are all the same person, the verb would be singular. Is the story about Edward II?

Posted by: Tom Jackson at June 19, 2005 05:03 AM

I am loving--LOVING--how much people are getting into the grammatical argument here!

It's "was." The "was" refers to each noun in the series individually.

On a tangent, I so much want to read Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. And I'm hoping that my attempt at italicizing just worked.

Posted by: Another Jordana at June 20, 2005 06:51 AM

It did. But my attempt at de-italicizing apparently didn't.

Posted by: Another Jordana at June 20, 2005 06:51 AM

My favorite text right now is called, A writer's resource: a handbook for writing and research. www.mhhe.com/maimon

Posted by: RP at June 20, 2005 12:16 PM

Another Jordana needs to show me the cite. That doesn't look right to me.

Of course, I'm chasing 50, and the times do change.

Posted by: Janis at June 20, 2005 12:28 PM

Janis -- "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" is a book by Lynn Truss about her annoyance with bad punctuation. Ms. Truss is British, so you may not agree with all her English lessons, but it's an interesting, and fairly entertaining, book.

Posted by: Frazier at June 20, 2005 03:57 PM

My advice? Punt: "Once upon a time, there lived a King, a Queen and a Knight."

Posted by: Robert the Llama Butcher at June 20, 2005 04:08 PM

Mr. Frazier, I said I was chasing 50, not living in a cave.:)

Posted by: Janis at June 21, 2005 01:21 AM

Hi Janis. :) Well, I Looked It Up, and guess what--I was wrong! According to the Bedford Handbook for Writers (Diana Hacker), technically, in inverted sentences beginning with "there was" or "there were," the verb must reflect the singular or plural nature of the subject. So, in a compound (plural) subject as in Jordana's example, it would be "there were a king, a queen, and a knight." The example in the book is "There were a social worker and a crew of twenty volunteers at the scene of the accident."

But I must say that I don't like how that sounds, so I'd put in a vote for "there lived," like R. the Llama Butcher.

Posted by: Another Jordana at June 21, 2005 09:06 AM