While writing a sentence like this one, is it okay to use "was" or should it be "were"?

Sarah skidded to a stop, for right behind Daniel was/were Jane and a man who she assumed was her father.

Should I use "were" to indicate two subjects (Jane and her father)?


You must use "were", because the verb has two subjects (Jane and the man).

Also, technically, "who" should be "whom", because he is the subject of Jane's assumption. But "whom" is becoming rare except in formal English, so "who" would be considered acceptable by many native speakers.

  • Okay, but isn't "who" corresponding to "was her father"? (and a man who was her father)? As in, we use "whom" when we write "She is the woman whom the company hired," but don't we use "who" when we write "He is the man who I believe was hired last month"? – skywardhope Nov 22 '17 at 23:43
  • This is why "whom" has fallen out of style. You have to draw a sentence diagram sometimes to be sure if it's an object or the subject of a phrase. After giving it more thought, I still think "whom" is correct in the first case and in both your examples. But I'll confess, as a native speaker, I wouldn't stake my life on that being right. I'm positive about the "were" though :) – DLCross Nov 22 '17 at 23:55
  • No, "who" is correct above. It should not be "whom" there. Remove "she assumed" and it reads "who was her father". As for was/were, this is a case of inversion. Replace the nouns above with pronouns: "behind him were they." – Nick Nov 23 '17 at 3:22
  • "whom" hasn't fallen out of use because of that; it has fallen out of use because many languages slowly syncretize over time. If we all said it all of the time, it would come naturally, but because it is seldom used anymore, when we want to use it, we sometimes have to think about it. – Nick Nov 23 '17 at 5:20

Ignoring the who/whom issue for now and focusing on the number agreement...

Punctuation is an attempt to make clear the syntactic structure of an utterance.

Jane and a man Mary assumed was Jane's father were right behind the truck.

Jane—and a man Mary assumed was Jane's father—was right behind the truck.

and can unite two nouns, in which case we have a plural subject.

and can also introduce a disjunct clause, in which case the subject can be singular.

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