6

What is the rule of concordance/agreement in the following sentence?

It was Magnus and Claudia

I have come across the type of agreement as in the example sentence above quite a few times.

Could anyone explain why the instance goes as It was and not as They were and is the latter usage possible and if yes, in which case?

  • 3
    You haven't specified a context. If the preceding utterance had been been a question, such as Who did it?, the cited reply above could be seen as a shortened version of It was Magnus and Claudia who did it. In which context it certainly wouldn't be idiomatic to reply They were Magnus and Claudia who did it. – FumbleFingers Oct 6 '18 at 13:32
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In a comment, you mentioned how you need to explain this to a sixth grader. With that in mind, I’ll offer this:

In language, sometimes two are treated as one.

Here are some examples:

  • I had a sandwich for lunch today. It was ham and cheese.

  • My favorite concert was the one I attended in 1983. It was Hall and Oates.

In those examples, the phrases “ham and cheese” and “Hall and Oates” are treated as a singular unit. The phrase “ham and cheese” could just as well be “ham on pumpernickel” and the concert band could have been “Metallica” or “the London Philharmonic Orchestra". Lexically, I’m merely describing the sandwich and the music group.

However:

  • I had two sandwiches for lunch today. They were ham and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly.

  • I have two favorite music groups; they are Hall & Oates and Simon & Garfunkel.

This time, there are two sandwiches, and two music groups, so we need to switch from the singular was to the plural were.

So, back to Magnus and Claudia:

  • The phone rang. It was Magnus and Claudia.

but:

  • I invited two friends to the party; they are Magnus and Claudia.
  • this explanation is much more down-to-earth/palatable – Yukatan Oct 6 '18 at 11:18
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    @Yukatan - My explanation may be easier for a sixth-grader to digest, but, to be fair, you didn’t say anything about sixth graders until after Tᴚoɯɐuo had left an answer. Another answer might be more “palatable” to a more advanced learner. Also, if part of your aim is to explain something to a sixth-grader, you probably ought to mention that in the details of your original question. – J.R. Oct 6 '18 at 11:36
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    Also, it in J.R.'s sandwich and concert examples is anaphoric, referring back to the singular noun in the prior clause (sandwich, concert). This is rather a different situation from "It was Magnus and Claudia at the door" where there is no antecedent noun to explain the singular pronoun. And a ham and cheese sandwich is always going to be "palatable". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 6 '18 at 11:38
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    @Tᴚoɯɐuo - There may not be an antecedent noun, but we presume there was at least an antecedent knock. :-) – J.R. Oct 6 '18 at 11:41
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    Here's an alternative way to understand this: The "it" or "they" in your sentence refers back to something that was mentioned earlier. When you need to chose between "it" or "they", what does the reader or hearer already know about the thing you are referring to? If they don't already know it is plural, use "it". If they do already know, use "they". – alephzero Oct 6 '18 at 12:04
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I heard a knock and opened the door. It was Magnus and Claudia.

"It was" refers to the existential situation, the present fact. This would also be idiomatic:

I heard a knock and opened the door. Standing there were Magnus and Claudia.

But this would not be idiomatic:

I heard a knock and opened the door. They were Magnus and Claudia. NO

This would be OK:

I heard a knock and opened the door. It was two people bundled up against the cold with scarves around their faces so that only their eyes were visible. They were Magnus and Claudia.

P.S. For the sixth-grader:

Knock knock!
-- Who's there?
It's us.
-- Who's 'us'?
Magnus and Claudia.

  • hmmm.. very deep and sophisticated indeed... Could you dwell upon it in a somehow more lucid way because I have to be able to explicate this material to a sixth grader? – Yukatan Oct 6 '18 at 10:32
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    Please see the P.S. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 6 '18 at 10:38
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    The knock knock joke would be even better if it was MagnUS and ClaudiUS.;) – alephzero Oct 6 '18 at 12:07
  • I'm not sure I would say that's idiomatic. Also, what happens when two doors are knocked upon, does that then match with "they were," 'they' referring two the two instances of knocking on doors.... or no? – ttbek Oct 6 '18 at 12:53
  • I think maybe the reason your 'nonidiomatic' sentence is that way, is because you haven't introduced any people into the sentence before you say 'they', and therefore it feels like a reference to something that's not there – max pleaner Oct 6 '18 at 19:53
0

You use “was” because the subject of the sentence is “it”. Although English sometimes has agreement based on the sense of a noun phrase, when “it” is the subject of a sentence you pretty much have to use formal agreement (singular). (The same goes for “they”, in reverse: the so-called “singular they” still takes plural verb agreement.)

The subject is “it” for reasons explained in Tᴚoɯɐuo‘s answer.

“Magnus and Claudia” is a plural noun phrase, but it is not the subject of the sentence, and the subject does not have to agree in plurality with a predicative noun phrase.

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    The asker never suggests using any part of "to be" that doesn't correspond to the subject, so your first paragraph doesn't seem at all relevant. The question is why "it" rather than "they". – David Richerby Oct 6 '18 at 23:41
  • @DavidRicherby I believe the answerer is trying to dispel the idea suggested by J.R. in their answer, which is that the predicative complement has to agree in number with the subject/verb. I might be mistaken because they haven't made that explicit, but J.R. says "This time, there are two sandwiches, and two music groups, so we need to switch from the singular was to the plural were." and in my view that's somewhat contentious. – userr2684291 Oct 7 '18 at 14:35
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    @userr2684291 If that's the case, it should be a comment on J.R.'s answer. – David Richerby Oct 7 '18 at 15:35

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