I have come across the following sentence: 'There were one or two people I didn't know' in "Oxford Word Skills (Intermediate). I take it that the word 'person' is implied after the word 'one' which makes me come to the conclusion that I should choose was instead of were here.

I know the rule which goes as follows: the form of the verb in 'there is/there are' depends on the form (singular or plural) of the first noun which comes after the construction, as in There is a cat and her kittens in the basket.

Could you explain the choice of the verb in the example from the coursebook and refer me to a reliable source where I could read about this?

  • 3
    No, "person" is not implied. "One or two" is a coordination of two determinatives forming a single determinative phrase. The verb is the plural "were" because the head of the noun phrase functioning as complement of the verb is the plural "people".
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 14:42
  • Could you direct me to any reliable sources to read about it in detail?
    – Yukatan
    Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 4:52
  • This may help link
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 6:07

1 Answer 1


In your example, the first noun after the verb is "people," so we should chose "were" for agreement. "One or two" is a determinative phrase.

Here is a discussion of numbers as adjectives.

The issue of matching "there is/are" with the following noun is a subtle and apparently contentious. I think your example highlights this fact, particularly since you have two adjectival numbers modifying a word that takes a different form when singular.

  • Isn't the word 'person' implied after the word 'one' and is just omitted?
    – Yukatan
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 13:14
  • 1
    @Yukatan I suppose you could think of it that way. I conceptualize "one or two people" as "some number of people between one and two," which makes the verb choice more clear. Perhaps there is a more strict rule that someone could point out.
    – Tashus
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 13:16
  • 1
    "One or two" is a determinative phrase (DP) consisting of a coordination of two determinatives. The DP does not modify the noun, but determines it.
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 14:48
  • @BillJ Thanks for the clarification. I've incorporated your info.
    – Tashus
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 14:53

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