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Once upon a time there was a man and a woman who had long, but to no avail, wished for a child.

Rapunzel by the Brothers Grimm

Why it is not were? A man and a woman are two people, so it is plural.

The only justification I could think of is the ellipsis: there was a man and there was a woman.

  • We had a similar question once! ell.stackexchange.com/questions/11986/…. (It looks like both are possible, and usually proximity--was being close to a man--prevails.) – Damkerng T. Jun 16 '14 at 1:26
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    I don't know how helpful it is to point Learners to links on the ELL site. More than once I've followed a link over there to find a bewildering labrynth of "answers" and comment trails that do not provide what most Learners are looking for, namely a cogent answer. Its especially confusing to find that the checked "answer" has all or mostly negative votes. Only the most dogged Native Speaker can sift through all that verbage and come to the conclusion that there is no accepted answer, not only by ELL participants but by the multiple references they haul out in favor of their favorite usage. – user6951 Jun 17 '14 at 2:15
  • Possible duplicate of Plurality of verb depending on plurality of list elements – Mari-Lou A Jan 13 '17 at 8:07
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At first glance, I would have said that the reason it is was is because there is always singular.

However, after looking at the linked question, I have to say that it agrees with the first item.

  • There was an apple and an orange on the table. correct
  • There were an apple and an orange on the table. questionable, non-standard?
  • There was some apples and some oranges on the table. questionable, non-standard?
  • There were some apples and some oranges on the table. correct
  • There was an apple and some oranges on the table. correct
  • There were an apple and some oranges on the table. questionable, non-standard?
  • There was some apples and an orange on the table. incorrect, maybe non-standard?
  • There were some apples and an orange on the table. correct

The reason that those cases of "there was" seems questionable and not entirely ungrammatical is because there is singular.

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    I agree with all cases, except for this one: There were an apple and some oranges on the table. I think I would consider it possibly correct (questionable is okay, imo, but perhaps not downright incorrect). – Damkerng T. Jun 16 '14 at 4:00

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