The contradictions of mass slavery and poverty side by side with boundless leisure and abundance was only one side of the picture.

From CIVILIZATION AND BEYOND Learning From History by Scott Nearing

The subject NP seems to be "the contradictions," a plural form, but the verb "was." Does the verb agree with the following singular NP?

  • They seem to be taking everything before was as a giant NP, which does make sense. Still, I probably would have broken this up into two sentences.
    – ralph.m
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 7:09
  • I don't understand your explanation. Could you elaborate it more?
    – NAM
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 7:14
  • I just mean that everything before was in that sentence could be grouped as a single unit, for which was would be the appropriate verb for. That is, "X was only one side of the picture", X being the whole phrase preceding was. Of course, X can be broken down into all sorts of separate parts of speech.
    – ralph.m
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 7:18

1 Answer 1


When a subject noun becomes separated from the verb phrase, there is a tendency to forget whether the noun was plural, and treat it as singular. There is probably some limit on the number of modifications that we can hold in our head before we forget the grammatical number of the noun.

In other words, this is a mistake, but a fairly common one.

  • Thank you for the explanation. Is there any possibility that the published books have a mistake like that? I have a tendency to blindly trust the grammaticality of passages if they are in the form of books or other publications because they must have been proofread several times by experts.
    – NAM
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 1:30
  • Yes, as I said, there is a tendency to disregard agreement when the noun and verb become separated. Mistakes in books are commonplace. Proofreaders are looking for the correctness of the content more than grammatical details that don't affect meaning.
    – James K
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 7:17

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