The intended context is as follows.

You saw a video that had been transmitted from the drones that had flown over terror suspects and killed them. In that video, you didn't see any of the drones, because the camera attached to the drones recorded the video.

In the video, you only saw those terror suspects being killed by the drones. After watching the video, you say one of these sentences:

(1) What we saw in the video was the drones killing terror suspects.

(2) What we saw in the video were the drones killing terror suspects.

(3) What we saw in the video was terror suspects being killed by the drones.

(4) What we saw in the video were terror suspects being killed by the drones.

In this context, are all of the above sentences natural?

If not, please tell me which is natural and which is not, and why.

  • 1
    I think 'was' should be used here because the logical (not syntactic) subject here is the clause 'the drones killing terror suspects'. Aug 23, 2017 at 12:53

3 Answers 3


All four versions are syntactically and idiomatically fine. Which to use is largely a matter of intended nuance and stylistic choice.

The difference between was/were in the first pair depends on the writer's intended focus...

1a:) was = we saw a single process/action (performed by multiple agents)
2a:) were = we saw multiple agents (performing a single process/action)

For the second pair, I need the linguistic term "patient". The "agent" above is usually the subject of the main verb, whereas "patient" (usually the direct object; terror suspects in this case) refers to who or whatever is affected/acted upon by what the agent does. Much the same nuance / distinction applies to the second pair...

3a:) was = we saw a single process/action (performed on multiple "patients")
4a:) were = we saw multiple "patients" (being subjected to a single process/action)

I should point out that the definite article (the drones) is "optional" in every case (assuming they've already been mentioned earlier in the text; if not, the article definitely shouldn't be included).

Arguably, the use of "the drones" (inclusive of definite article) implies the writer thinks it's more interesting/shocking that they observed drones (not actual human military personnel) engaging in these activities (as opposed to being focused on the fact that these actions were killings, or that the targets were terror suspects). But as I said, it's really a matter of nuance and style.

Just one final observation. OP specifically points out that we don't actually see the drones themselves. But only a pedantic lawyer quizzing a witness would take issue with details like that - it's contextually obvious that the drones were the "active/guilty party" in the event(s) being described, even though they don't feature in the footage being viewed.

  • +1 I'd sign under every word here! That's what I call a professional answer. I would also add that all of them are natural. Aug 23, 2017 at 14:24
  • @SovereignSun: I think it's a particularly good question, in that even in OP's very precisely-described context, all four are perfectly natural (and do indeed have clearly-identifiable differences of nuance, so we don't just have to trot out the old line about them being "interchangeable"). But looking at it again I think I should perhaps mention that #2 is perhaps slightly more of a "semantic stretch" (in that OP says we never actually the drones themselves) - but this is just a semantic quibble that wouldn't bother normal speakers in the least. Aug 23, 2017 at 15:26
  • Who downvoted this? Comment please. Aug 23, 2017 at 15:29
  • You seem to be saying that whether to use "was" or "were" depends on whether we saw an action (killing) or an agent/patient (drones / terror suspects). I think I've made it clear in the OP that it's the action of killing that we saw, not just either the drones and the terror suspects. If I wasn't clear, let's assume that it's clearly the action that we saw. Now, are (2) and (4) unnatural?
    – JK2
    Aug 24, 2017 at 0:39
  • As I said, all 8 versions (your four, plus the same without the) are perfectly natural. And although you as the writer/speaker might choose any one of those based on personal whim and/or to convey different nuances as set out above, that doesn't necessarily imply your readers/audience would be aware of the intended distinction. The meanings are all so close most people probably wouldn't be aware of any difference in meaning in a real-world conversational context, and they'd just dismiss you as a pedant if you started trying to force a distinction. Aug 24, 2017 at 16:24

If you are referring to what-you-saw as to multiple subjects in action then you tend to use the plural were, otherwise you can refer to it as a single process. In this situation you can ask yourself a question "What was it that you saw?" - you get "It was [the drones killing terror suspects]" or "It was [terror suspects being killed by drones]". You refer to what-you-saw as it - "the one thing you saw".

  • "When we landed in Afghanistan what we saw was [armed men everywhere]"

Generally, all your sentences are correct. However, it depends on who your reader is. If he's a strict grammatical prune then 2 and 4 are correct else 1 and 3 are also correct.

Edit: Since you emphasize that you didn't see the drones but only saw terror suspects being killed by them. The drones were behind the camera. Then definitely 3 and 4 are your choice. You should place focus on exactly what-you-saw rather than what lay beyond what-you-saw.

  • I don't see how the question test works. With what should should the verb agree? Aug 23, 2017 at 13:00
  • Could you elaborate on why you think 2 and 4 are more correct than 1 and 3, respectively?
    – JK2
    Aug 24, 2017 at 0:27
  • @JK2 Strictly grammatically with plural subjects you use a plural verb. Aug 24, 2017 at 5:00
  • @SovereignSun What do you think is the subject of (1)-(4)? And why?
    – JK2
    Aug 24, 2017 at 5:14
  • @JK2 I've updated my answer. Aug 24, 2017 at 5:22

1 is incorrect because the subject was plural 2 is correct 3 is incorrect because although the video was singular the subjects are plural thus 4. Is correct

  • USER 178... I quite understand what you say. If you wish to use 1 and 3 as correct answers then i would say a comma and appostrophes are required : what we saw on the video was, 'the drones were killing terror suspects'. Thus you have identified both singular and plural subjects
    – Patricia
    Aug 23, 2017 at 13:03
  • a non-finite clause used as a subject is normally singular 'playing games is fun'. The use of punctuation is irrelevant here. Aug 23, 2017 at 13:12

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