What should we use in the following sentence, were or was:

Our only guide _____ stars.

What is the grammar rule for the usage of Singular and Plural forms of verbs?

  • Stars were our only guide. – Mido Mido Feb 16 '18 at 18:59
  • The problem was my nerves. But: My nerves were the problem. Is it really the same? – Lambie Feb 16 '18 at 21:45
  • This can be analyzed as copular inversion, which is not in the other question. – Lambie Feb 16 '18 at 21:53
  • Copular inversion could be (and perhaps should be) in the answer to the other question. That can be fixed. – James K Feb 16 '18 at 22:06

'Our only guide was stars' (Implying 'a constellation of stars' - 'it' -one thing - so use 'was') ('our only guide' - 'was' - 'it') This is poetic - and ok to use in my view, as is:

'Stars were our guide' (we perceive stars as a multiple, a million individual points of light - so use 'were'.)

Other alternatives:

'Our only guide was the stars'. Here 'the stars' are clearly a group, as denoted by the 'the', so you use 'was'. 'A constellation of stars' is implied.

'Our only guides were stars' - change 'guides' to plural with 's' and you then have the sense of multiples of individual 'guiding stars' - guiding you - so use 'were'.

'Our only guide was a star' (or 'a single star...' to be poetic) in which case it is clearly singular - use 'was'.

'A single star was our only guide' same idea.

Possible rule: Determine whether 'stars' refer to 'individual multiple stars' - needing to be referred to as 'they', or an implied 'a constellation of stars' which is referred to as 'it' - and conjugate accordingly.

Note - would a commenter please clarify whether my 'rule' is correct? Or is it the subject/object of the sentence that is the determiner here? Thanks

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The normal order of this sentence is: The stars were our only guide.

"Our only guide" is the predicate. If you place the predicate first, the verb still needs to match the subject.

This is called predicate and subject inversion.

Stars is plural, therefore, the verb should be plural.

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    I don't see why the sentence "Our only guide was stars" should be considered to be an inversion. I don't think in that sentence "our only guide" is a predicate, it is the subject. If the subject is singular then the verb should be singular, as suggested in the possible duplicate. – James K Feb 16 '18 at 21:22
  • I don't think personally that "Our only guide was stars." is grammatical. That's my whole point. You needn't agree with it. And if you invert it, you can see why. Personally, I would use the plural. It's called copular inversion: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subject%E2%80%93verb_inversion_in_English I have just found out. – Lambie Feb 16 '18 at 21:38
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    But note that if you make a copular inversion, then the verb should agree with the inverted subject. The web page you give has an example "Jack and Jill are the problem" but "The problem is Jack and Jill". In this case you should have "Our only guide was the stars" for subject-verb agreement. – James K Feb 16 '18 at 22:06

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