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Should the Highlighted "was" in this sentence be "were" instead?

So the rules assigning each kind of virus to a given safety level were laxer than some might think was prudent.

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  • A somewhat simpler context which embodies exactly the same issue regarding singular/plural verb: The knives are sharper than I think is necessary (or even just They're sharper than is necessary). I certainly wouldn't want to say the second highlighted verb there must be singular, but idiomatically I'm pretty sure most native speakers would prefer that to The knives are sharper than I think are necessary. At the end of the day, this is a fairly obscure point that's more a matter of "stylistic choice" rather than being logically / semantically "correct". May 17 at 15:05
  • @Lambie: Your rephrased version doesn't mean the same as the original.In fact, I'm not sure it even makes sense at all. May 17 at 15:36
  • Some might think it imprudent that the rules assigning each kind of virus to a given safety level were laxer. The so is "de trop".
    – Lambie
    May 17 at 15:38
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Presumably, you're wondering if it should be "was" or "were" because you have a plural noun, "rules". If the verb related to this noun, you would say "the rule was.." or "the rules were...". But that isn't the case in your example.

In your sentence, the verb relates to the degree of care with which safety levels were assigned (it is described as "lax"), and that 'degree of care' is singular, so you should use "was".

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  • How is it relevant that "degree of care" is singular? It's just a noun phrase that you've invented to justify using a singular verb, but nothing like that appears in the actual text being analysed here. One might as well say that because the pains that were taken [to apply the rules] is plural, that justifies using the plural verb in OP's exact example. May 25 at 16:47
  • @FumbleFingers I haven't 'invented a phrase'... I've used the English language to explain something. That's what we do here. "The rules were laxer than some might consider prudent" suggests that there is a fixed level, above which is prudent, below which is lax. It is that degree to which the verb relates.
    – Astralbee
    May 26 at 9:33
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The business about some might think is unnecessarily distracting and syntactically irrelevant. Here's a chart showing relative frequency for the simplest phrasing I can think of in this area....

enter image description here

My guess is that native speakers who don't think about it are the ones primarily responsible for promoting the singular usage here, because I can't think of any logical or syntactic / semantic justification for it.

All I can say is that as a native speaker myself, I'd normally prefer the singular verb form - as do many others. And presumably that preference is in reality fairly strong, since I assume it's got little to support it apart from "idiomatically established" (which somehow holds its own against grammarians and pedants! :)

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  • What you "prefer" as a native speaker is irrelevant. The verb refers to a singular thing.
    – Astralbee
    May 25 at 13:32

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