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I usually get this right, but for some reason this particular phrase is giving me headaches. The phrase in question is:

"Not that there were an abundance of sticks or building supplies"

Ordinarily, as the sticks/building supplies are plural I'd assume were; however, as I consider 'an abundance' to be a singular object encompassing multiple other objects, it gives me pause. Should it be "was an abundance of sticks or building supplies"?

Which is more correct?

Edit: my English teacher uncle just called, quite fortuitously, and advised that I was correct in my original assertion that it should be was an abundance. He also reminded me that 'a multitude' follows the same rules (which I knew, and had completely forgotten).

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  • 3
    'Was an abundance' feels right to me.
    – Kate Bunting
    Sep 24, 2018 at 8:02
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    See the definition and usage of abundance in a good dictionary. Good Luck.
    – Kris
    Sep 24, 2018 at 8:07
  • You could answer your own question, now that you have the answer. english.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer
    – tmgr
    Sep 24, 2018 at 10:08
  • I think this could be a American-English / British-English difference. I've seen & heard British speakers use the plural when the subject is collective noun. E.g. from a C.S. Lewis book: "The vicar says that Mrs. Fidget is at rest. Let us hope that she is. What's certain is that her family are." And from a Monty Python sketch: "And the crowd are loving it! They're really enjoying this novel!"
    – JDM-GBG
    Sep 24, 2018 at 11:14
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    @JDM-GBG, I’m British and those examples seem correct to me. I would use "was" in the original question. Ngrams puts the singular as more common (AmE or BrE), but the distinction might be more to do with family as individuals or as a group.
    – Pam
    Sep 24, 2018 at 11:52

2 Answers 2

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I'm suspecting this is a case of the almost non-existent use of the subjunctive mood/tense in English, mostly present when using the verb "to be". If the use is hypothetical, one almost always uses the subjunctive, as in "if I were you." In this case it's not quite clear and both, I think, could be used depending on the intent. The use in the example here is more a definite statement of fact than hypothesis and I'd feel more comfortable using "was".

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Not that there was an abundance of sticks or building supplies.

The above sentence is correct because of sticks or building supplies is just some additional information about the abundance you meant, i.e., it answers Abundance of what?.

If only there was and instead of or in your sentence both were and was would be correct conveying different meaning.

  1. Not that there were an abundance of sticks and building supplies.
  2. Not that there was an abundance of sticks and building supplies.

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