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Consider:

It were or was the students who wanted the teacher to declare

Is there a way to identify when a collective noun will take a singular verb and when it will take a plural verb?

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Note that the original sentence with out being a cleft sentence is the students wanted the teacher to declare, this may cause the confusion on using were or was, but when it comes to a cleft, you use was. – Ustanak Jan 21 at 15:26
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In the English West Country dialect, it would be "It were they students..." – Chenmunka Jan 21 at 15:49
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Note that if you put "If" in front of the sentence, the correct answer to this question changes: "If it were the students..." and "It was the students..." are both correct. Common usage has pretty much made "If it was the students..." also accepted by pretty much everyone, but if you want to get as precise as possible, "were" is more correct when "if" is involved. – Todd Wilcox Jan 21 at 18:03

The singular subject "It" takes the singular verb "was." Thus,

"It was the students who wanted the teacher to declare."

If the subject was "the students," then it would take a plural verb; e. g.,

"The students were hoping the teacher would declare it was time to play."

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