1. TimHarris
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    TimHarris Senior Member

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    There was were thread

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by TimHarris, Feb 20, 2013.

    As I am not a native english speaker, I find these two words very confusing at times. Normally I would just write whatever "feels" right to pronounce, but I have trouble differentiating between was and were at times.

    In norwegian, we have two words that are also quite confusing, og and å, both are pronounced the same way, and both can be used in some sentences, but not always. Like "I'm sitting here writing" could be written in norwegian as: "Jeg sitter å skriver", but could also be written: "Jeg sitter og skriver", even though 'å' normally means 'to'.

    I'm having the same issue with was and were. It seems to me when reading a setence out loud, that both words seem to work pretty well, but I know only one of them usually fits. Is there any cold hard rules to follow when using these words? I tried finding something on google about it, but what I found confused me more than it helped.

    An example of a sentence where I cant tell what word fits would be: "There was/were fifty soldiers in the keep."
    Any input would be greatly appreciated :)
     
  2. hippocampus
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    hippocampus Active Member

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    Heck, native English speakers have a hard time with was/were!

    The easiest use of were (IMHO) is for the plural. In your example, you would use were: "There were fifty soldiers..."

    The hardest use of were seems to be the use of it as a type of hypothetical or "subjunctive" use. For example...

    If you were talking about just one soldier (which you're not, so I'm using "were"), your sentence would read, "There was one soldier in the keep."
     
  3. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    yup!... that...
     
  4. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    There's another use of "were" that's fairly confusing, even to native English speakers. It's called the "subjunctive mood" and involves hypothetical situations. You see it in sentences like "I wouldn't do that if I were you." Normally, because I is singular, you'd expect "was" instead of "were", but "were" is correct in this case. Fowler's Modern English Usage lists some more examples, including "Blanche almost wished it were winter again", "It would be as though the artist were not aware of the interim period", etc.

    There's a pretty extensive article on this on Wikipedia.
     
  5. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    ^^ When there is little or no possibility of something, as in "if I were you" "if only Jack were here" "would that we were young" "I wish it were summer" etc we distance ourselves from our present state and retreat into the past. The reason we say "were" and not "was" for those sentences above is that in subjunctive it is always "be" in present and "were" in past, regardless of singular/plural.

    The basic rule for was/were is was=singular and were=plural, as mentioned above, but some collective nouns (groups) can appear as either singular or plural (and US and UK usage differs slightly in how commonly singular is used, I think).

    Examples of this are family/army/post office/staff. So we can say: "My family was rich" or "My family were from Devon" "The army was rescuing people" "The army were standing by" etc
     
  6. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I first noticed this regional difference in usage with company names. I grew up in Canada, and we'd say "Apple is coming out with a new iPhone." People from the UK (and Australia) would say "Apple are coming out with a new iPhone."
     
  7. hippocampus
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    hippocampus Active Member

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    Yep - that's what I was referring to when I mentioned the hypothetical or "subjunctive" use.

    So for a sentence like, "If I were the boss, we'd all get two hour lunches."

    That sentence uses the verb "were" because it isn't true. Just wishful thinking. :D
     
  8. hippocampus
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    hippocampus Active Member

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    So true!
     
  9. Phoenix Hikari
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    Phoenix Hikari Contributing Member

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    So we use were instead of was when we are doing wishful thinking? Like when whatever it is were are saying is an impossible reality or has a very thin chance of becoming???

    Hmmm... I think I finally get it. :D
     
  10. The Tourist
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    The Tourist Banned

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    Ahhh, there's the problem! You're trying to speak English. We speak "Amurkin." Totally diferent dialect.

    Just add the redneck epithet "iddenit."

    For example, we'd use the wrong word by ignorance--then add the epithet. For example:

    "That were a herd of guernsey milk cows, iddenit?"

    But chew gum loudly, breathe through your mouth and try to look disinterested. People will think you're a native Chicago Bears fan.
     
  11. GhostWolfe
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    GhostWolfe Member

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    In a subconscious kind of way, it depends on whether you think of the company as a singular entity, or a group of people. I would probably unthinkingly switch between is/are, likely multiple times in the same conversation.

    I find the same thing happening with band names, where there seems to be a sort of unspoken acceptance as to which names lend themselves to being singular/plural.
     
  12. hippocampus
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    hippocampus Active Member

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    Now you're just obfuscating the lexicon! :p
     
  13. The Tourist
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    The Tourist Banned

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    ...ever see a Chicago Bears fan...

    I used humor to demonstrate a point. Frankly, you can sometimes tell if the person with whom you're conversing is a foreigner. They speak perfect English.

    I worked on the telephone for thirty years, and did some hiring. More than one guy never got the job because he couldn't make himself understood.

    It's a bad habit, and while I'm sensitive to the problem, my wife notices that I don't have to spend too much time with my buddies to start peppering my launguage with "frakking," and I do not mean 'frakking.'
     

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