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    • Join Date: Jan 2006
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    #1

    Question 'was / were - in a question"

    Hi

    I have had an interesting conversation with a Japanese co-worker about the following two questions:

    1. What was on the plates?
    2. What were on the plates?

    To me the second one is wrong.... the way I tried to explain it is that the plural 'plates' is not connected to the verb be under the normal singular / plural rules.

    It is a question - so you do not know what was on the plates - therefore to use 'were' indicates that you know the answer already......

    I also looked up in a grammar book and it said that questions with who and what are most often used with singular verbs even if a pulral is expected in the answer.

    Does anyone have any other ideas / opinion on this? Or does anyone have a clearer grammar explanation.

    I was also wondering if anyone could recommend a good grammar book that has detailed information about 'questions' - usage, how to write etc etc...

  1. rewboss's Avatar

    • Join Date: Feb 2006
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    #2

    Re: 'was / were - in a question"

    The verb generally agrees with the subject. There are times when the verb "to be" can agree with the complement, as in the sentence "There are five people waiting for you", and this may be where confusion sets in. However, the phrase "on the plates" is neither a subject nor a complement, but a prepositional phrase which gives you extra information to help you understand what exactly is being asked.

    "What" is the subject here, and this is what the verb tends to agree with; and "what" is, grammatically, singular.

    In a sentence like "What were they doing?" the situation is different: "what" is an object, so the verb doesn't agree with it; instead, it agrees with "they", which is the subject.

    As for recommending a book, the stock-in-trade is English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy, which is available in several versions for different levels of English. It's a reference book with exercises, though, and not an actual course book.


    • Join Date: Aug 2006
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    #3

    Re: 'was / were - in a question"

    Quote Originally Posted by rewboss View Post

    "What" is the subject here, and this is what the verb tends to agree with; and "what" is, grammatically, singular.


    Original posting:
    I have had an interesting conversation with a Japanese co-worker about the following two questions:

    1. What was on the plates?
    2. What were on the plates?
    Is 'what' really grammatically singular or is this simply convention or common sense wherein it's a true question, meaning the speaker is ignorant of the total situation, not knowing what or number?

    What of

    "What things were on the plate?"

    where the speaker has gained some knowledge of number?

  2. rewboss's Avatar

    • Join Date: Feb 2006
    • Posts: 1,552
    #4

    Re: 'was / were - in a question"

    Quote Originally Posted by riverkid View Post
    Is 'what' really grammatically singular or is this simply convention or common sense wherein it's a true question, meaning the speaker is ignorant of the total situation, not knowing what or number?
    Ultimately, it makes little difference. When native speakers use "what" in this way, as a subject, they tend to make the verb singular. We can then, by way of shorthand, express this as a rule: "What" is grammatically singular. The metaphysical aspect of what exactly is going on in the mind of the speaker during such an utterance is best explored in the Linguistics forum.

    What of

    "What things were on the plate?"

    where the speaker has gained some knowledge of number?
    Well, then the subject is not "What" on its own, but the phrase "What things"; and "what things" is grammatically plural.

    (By the way, this is my 1337th post, so I suppose that deserves a "w00t". )

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    #5

    Re: 'was / were - in a question"

    (By the way, this is my 1337th post, so I suppose that deserves a "w00t". )

    Auxiliary explanation for uninitiated in hacker slang

    "w00t"

    An interjection similar to “Yay!”, as in: “w00t!!! I just got a raise!” Often used for small victories the speaker dies not expect to be of special interest to anyone else. Some claim this is a bastardization of “root”, the highest level of access to a system (particularly UNIX), originated by script kiddies as a 133tspeak equivalent of “root”, and said as an exclamation upon gaining root access. Others claim it originated in the Everquest multiplayer game as an abbreviation of “wonderful loot”. Still other claim it on originated on IRC as the “Ewok victory cheer”] Adj. w00table has the sense of “cool” or “nifty”. This is one of the few leet-speak coinages to have crossed over into non-ironic use among hackers.

    Regards.

    V.


    • Join Date: Aug 2006
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    #6

    Re: 'was / were - in a question"

    Quote Originally Posted by rewboss View Post

    (By the way, this is my 1337th post, so I suppose that deserves a "w00t". )
    w00t

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