There was or There were: How to Choose?

Phrases like “there was” and “there were” are common examples of phrases that appear to be simple but have the probability of being complicated sometimes. But if you are well aware of the phrases “there is” and “there are” then it will not be much of a problem for you.

While both of them are correct, they have different functions and applicability. Let us discuss how and where these phrases can be applied.

Difference between There was and There were

In general, the phrase “there is” is used when the noun that follows it is singular and “there are” when the noun that follows it is plural.

Similarly, when we use sentences that communicate in the past tense, “there was” is used for a singular object or noun that follows it, and “there were” is used for plural objects or nouns that follow the phrase.

Let us study some examples:

(i) “There was” is used when we refer to a single person or a thing.

There was a meeting the previous night.”

Here, “there was” is used as “meeting” is a singular noun.

(ii) “There were” is used when we refer to more than a single person or a thing.

There were many sweet dishes at the party last night.”

Here, “there were” is used as “sweet dishes” is plural.

To make it more clear, we understand that the word “there” is generally used as an adverb of place. But it often functions as a dummy subject. When it is used as a dummy, the number of nouns following it will decide whether a singular verb should follow it or a plural verb.

  • There was a party yesterday.
  • There were many students in the meeting.

So we see, when the noun that follows the word is singular, a singular verb is used, and when the noun following it is plural, a plural verb is used.

Usage with Collecting Phrases

When we use collecting phrases in a sentence such as a variety of, a number of, etc., we have to figure out where we need to focus. If we need to emphasize the group, we will use “was”, and if we need to emphasize the individual members, we will use “were”.

Let us look at some examples;

  • There was a wide variety of foods at the party.
  • There were a variety of delicious foods at the party.

Usage with a series of item

Sometimes we refer to multiple objects in a sentence. In such constructions, we use “there was” and not “there were”.

Let us understand with an example;

"There was a pen, notebook, and laptop on the desk."

We see, even though we are addressing more than a single thing, we are still using a singular verb. That is because the subject that follows the phrase is a singular noun and not plural, so the verb will depend on the noun that follows it.

So we see, there is a clear distinction between the two phrases, “there was” and “there were”. Learning them will help you choose correctly.

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