He brought the umbrella swishing down through the air to point at Dudley –– there was a flash of violet light, a sound like a firecracker, a sharp squeal, and the next second, Dudley was dancing on the spot with his hands clasped over his fat bottom, howling in pain. When he turned his back on them, Harry saw a curly pig's tail poking through a hole in his trousers.
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

Why is there ‘was’ instead of the plural from, were?

  • 1
    Why would you think that it should be "were"? – hjpotter92 Oct 4 '13 at 3:54
  • @hjpotter92, there are plural complements after 'was': (1) a flash~, (2) a sound~, (3) a sharp. – Listenever Oct 4 '13 at 4:10
  • 2
    They are not referring to three different events, they are being implied as a single moment; and used to state that Hagrid used magic on Dudley. – hjpotter92 Oct 4 '13 at 4:27
  • Sure, but the question is valid: "upon what gramatical rule to we justify the fact that the verb was does not take it's form from the collection of things after it?". It's a good question that deserves a good answer... – GreenAsJade Sep 29 '14 at 5:11

When the semantic subject follows the verb and is an enumeration, English usually uses the closest-item agreement rule: the verb agrees with the first item in the enumeration.

There was a flash of violet light and a sound like a firecracker.
There was a flash of violet light and sounds like firecrackers.
There were flashes of violet light and a sound like a firecracker.

The third sentence does sound slightly less awkward than the second.

I don't think the plural would be ungrammatical, but it sounds awkward. Stylistically, the plural would emphasize the multiplicity of perceptible effects, which would not fit in this context where these are all effects of the same event happening all at once — they are aspects of a single phenomenon, which pushes for the singular.

If the effects were a grammatical subject, the verb would have to be plural.

A flash of violet light and a sound like a firecracker were emitted.

See also Mixing plural and singular list items with a single verb on our sister site (about a different but related case).

  • Good answer, but: the third sentence means something different to the first two. Thererfore, I'm not sure if it is a fair comparison. The third sentence is saying that there was more than one flash of violet light, wheras the first two only have one flash. – GreenAsJade Sep 29 '14 at 5:08
  • @GreenAsJade The first paragraph is making a grammatical comparison, not a semantic comparison. The three sentences have different meanings but parallel constructions. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Sep 29 '14 at 7:18
  • Yes, I understand that. However, the comparison of the "gramatics" feels unfair in the case of the third one, because it doesn't say the same thing. Wouldn't it be more elegant to compare gramatically a sentence that means the same but uses "were"? – GreenAsJade Sep 29 '14 at 7:23
  • @GreenAsJade The second sentence also means something different. This post is about grammar. I don't understand this thing about unfairness. Grammar doesn't give equal time to both numbers, usually one is correct and the other one isn't. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Sep 29 '14 at 7:26

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