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Today I got confused with the sentence:

"When was he hung and they freed?"

How should it be said if I want to use only one auxiliary verb?

1) When was he hung and they freed?

2) When were he hung and they freed?

Please, explain this to me

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When was he hung and they freed?

Unless this sentence is describing a man hung on a wall like a painting, the sentence should use hanged, not hung. (Although the other meaning is certainly conceivable, I doubt it's what is meant.)

Under the assumption that the author simply made a mistake, I will correct it to hanged.


✔ When was he hanged and they freed?

This sentence is grammatical as written. It is an elliptical version of:

When was he hanged and (when were) they freed?

The missing when were is assumed to exist in front of they freed.


✘ When were he hanged and they freed.

This is ungrammatical because you've provided an explicitly incorrect conjugation. It is was he hanged not were he hanged in this construction. (You can use were he hanged in a subjunctive construction—were he hanged overnight, he would die—but this isn't one.)

However, you could reverse the sentence, which would allow for the different conjugation:

✔ When were they freed and he hanged.

As with the previous comment about ellipsis, this would be assumed to be:

When were they freed and (when was) he hanged.


Note that—if you simply encountered this sentence—it's also possible that they is a typo. The author may have intended to write then rather than they:

When was he hanged and then freed?

This would make sense if the man had been hanged—but actually rescued before he strangled to death.

(Or, if he actually had been hung on the wall like a painting, then the rescue could have taken longer, since there would have been no imminent threat of death.)

This could only be determined from a larger context.

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I'm guessing you're trying to say "when was he hung [correct: hanged] and when were they freed?" (but with only one auxiliary verb), but the full form is probably also the only clear way to say it.

Your option 1 is ok, shorter (good) but less clear (bad). Your option 2 just sounds wrong.

Sometimes rephrasing entirely avoids such problems. You need context for that, so I can't do this for your sentence. But something like "when did the hanging and the freeing occur?" is an example of what I'm thinking about, although this particular example isn't nice either.

  • You mean the second option can't exist because after "were" goes the singular noun? Okay, I knew it. But with the same result the first one can't exist cause "was" would relate to the plural noun. Would it be different if we change the word "and" for "but" like: When was he hung but they freed? Or it doesn't change anything? – Michael Azarenko Feb 13 at 10:05
  • last question: it doesn't change anything... otherwise: the 1-verb version is perhaps not technically correct, but we humans can understand such sentences anyway... so much so that, at least outside the classroom, we treat them as gramatically ok... the most important thing is context... if the context guides the reader, the sentence may be entirely clear... otherwise, it may be somewhat confusing... – sesquipedalias Feb 14 at 11:08
  • So, the first one is more or less acceptable while the latter one isn't? – Michael Azarenko Feb 15 at 11:50
  • TLDR, yes...... – sesquipedalias Feb 15 at 11:59
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Grammatically, they are all wrong. As i see it, the most correct way in this case is:

When was he hanged and when were they freed?

Otherwise, you cannot correctly match the numbers, whatever you do.

Note: initially, the sentence "When was he hung and they freed?" did not even make any sense to me, until I focused on what it could mean.

Dilemma: The sentence in the question suggests the idea that the two actions happened at the same time. The sentence in my solution suggests two independent actions, which may have happened at the same time, or at different moments in time.

  • Would it be different if we change the word "and" for "but" like: When was he hung but they freed? Or it doesn't change anything? So, in your opninon we must use two auxiliary verbs anyway? Can't the sentence "When was he hung and when were they freed?" be any shorter? – Michael Azarenko Feb 13 at 10:09
  • I understand you dilemma. "But" may change things a little in your favor. Also, this is marginally better: "When was he hung (and they freed)?" - notice the parenthesis. – virolino Feb 13 at 10:27
  • You mean this sentence with 'but" can't exist? It's still incorrect? But with the parenthesis it's okay or still wrong? – Michael Azarenko Feb 13 at 10:45
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    Note also that the past participle of hang, as in the execution method, is hanged and not hung. – jsheeran Feb 13 at 12:15
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    :))) I did not notice that. You are right, unless he was actually a coat ;) +1 – virolino Feb 13 at 12:21

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