8

I can't figure out if the below sentence should use “was” or “were”, since I'm not sure what the subject of the sentence is. Is the sentence incomplete? How do I handle this kind of sentence, where no nouns or pronouns are present?

Knowing how to jump and being able to run was / were crucial during my high jump career.

2
  • 1
    A subject that is an "and" coordination of clauses generally takes a singular verb (though, it is possible to use a plural verb when the predicate treats the coordinates as separate items). So, it seems to me, that "was" is probably the preferred verb in your example, though "were" would probably be okay too. (There's related stuff in the 2002 CGEL, page 508.)
    – F.E.
    Dec 2 '14 at 23:10
  • 1
    @F.E. I was wondering when you were going to get round to this. Don't want to link to one of your other posts? Dec 3 '14 at 2:34
7
  1. Knowing how to jump and being able to run was / were crucial during my high jump career.

As to the subject of the OP's example sentence:

  • The subject is the expression: [Knowing how to jump] and [being able to run].
  • That subject is in the form of an 'and'-coordination.
  • The coordinates are two '-ing' clauses (which are non-finite clauses).

If a subject is in the form of an 'and'-coordination of clauses, then the default for subject-verb agreement, w.r.t. number and person, is singular and third person; and that is what is often used. In the case of the OP's example, that would mean the use of the singular verb "was":

  1. Knowing how to jump and being able to run was crucial during my high jump career.

Though, it is possible for the writer to use the plural verb "were" if that would be more appropriate due to what is in the rest of the sentence or due to the writer's intent for that sentence.

Here's a related excerpt from the 2002 CGEL. On page 508:

And-coordinations of clauses

Subjects with the form of an and-coordination of clauses generally take singular verbs:

[29]

  • i. [That the form was submitted on the very last day and that the project had not been properly costed] suggests that the application was prepared in a rush.

  • ii. [How the dog escaped and where it went] remains a mystery.

It is nevertheless possible to have a plural verb when the predicate treats the coordinates as expressing separate facts, questions, or the like:

[30]

  • i. [That the form was submitted on the very last day and that the project had not been properly costed] are two very strong indications that the application was prepared in a rush.

  • ii. [How the dog escaped and where it went] are questions we may never be able to answer.

Notice how the two examples in [30] have predicative complements that are noun phrases that are plural in number ("two very strong indications . . .", "questions . . .").

Also, notice that the CGEL examples in [29-30] use subordinate content clauses (which are finite clauses) for its examples, while the OP's example is using two non-finite clauses which just happen to not have subjects in them. (For a version that is similar to the OP's example but instead uses '-ing' clauses with subjects could be something like: "My knowing how to jump and my being able to run was crucial during my high jump career.")


(Aside: In general, the default subject-verb agreement, w.r.t. number and person, for a clause can be considered to be singular and third person. Usually there has to be something explicit in the sentence for that subject-verb agreement to be otherwise.)

Note that the 2002 CGEL is the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

23
  • 1
    @Araucaria Oh, yup, like "Bacon and eggs is what I like for breakfast"? :D . . . I added info, let me know if there's anything that could be tweaked or changed or added or corrected -- or you could edit it yourself if you wanted. :)
    – F.E.
    Dec 4 '14 at 19:34
  • 1
    @Araucaria Er, I've spent a good hunk of the last three days collecting some info and reviewing stuff in CGEL and floundering about in editing that post of mine over there, taking some wrong paths and what not. I think I've finally gotten enough info reviewed where I should be able to now properly answer that question on adjectives with to-infinitivals. Maybe soon I'll get that answer done! :D
    – F.E.
    Dec 7 '14 at 4:03
  • 1
    @Araucaria How about checking and verifying my answer post for me? Thanks. :) -- ell.stackexchange.com/a/41292/8758
    – F.E.
    Dec 7 '14 at 12:05
  • 1
    I love the beginning, it's really very well considered and presented (for teachs), much better than mine. It looks as though you might be adding a section at a later date? If so, I think the later ditransitive passive section (4.4-4.6) and also possibly (5.4-5.6) might fit in better that next section? It's quite a lot to read through and cogitate about - and then find out that it doesn't really have a direct bearing on point #A. This bit section might be a bit sharper without those bits, imo ( -or it might be just that I'm struggling to follow a little bit, no surprises :)) Dec 7 '14 at 13:20
  • 1
    @Araucaria I'm thinking of adding to the "short answer" a bit about looking at a truncated version of the two examples, and using them to show how it seems that the truncated version must (?) be good in order for the original version to also be good in order for the matrix subject to be the antecedent for the infinitival's subject gap. E.g. "The medicine is easy [ to be taken ]" is no good, nor is "The medicine is easy". While "The medicine is ready [ to be taken ]" is good, as is The medicine is ready". Do you think that observation is accurate?
    – F.E.
    Dec 7 '14 at 18:16
4

The subjects are "knowing how to jump" and "being able to run", so were is correct since there are two subjects.

More verbosely, you can imagine the sentence as if it were written,

"The knowledge of how to jump and the ability to run were crucial during my high jump career."

This is structurally equivalent to

"Knowledge and ability were crucial during my high jump career."

so hopefully it is clear that were is correct.

If the writer intended "knowledge and ability" to be considered as one collective thing, rather than two distinct things or facets of the same idea, then was would be correct. For example, consider

"The entire town lay in ruins. Death and destruction was everywhere."

Here, "death and destruction" is meant to be considered as one phrase, not two separate things, so was is correct.

3

This is a tough one. We've got two good answers, one which argues for "was" and one which argues for "were". In point of fact, it really depends on what the speaker/writer meant, what the hearer/reader expects and what is in most common (and therefore expected) usage. That is, do the two coordinates on both sides of the "and" have to be considered together, or can they be considered separately.

Is the knowledge of jumping and the ability to run (see, I just used singular "is" instead of "are") a collective group of things needed to succeed at high jumping?

Or...

Are the knowledge of jumping and the ability to run a pair of things (perhaps there are others) needed to succeed at high jumping?

In this specific example, it depends on what the writer/speaker thinks is the case, and similarly, for the receiver (listener/reader) of the information.

For someone who is not a native speaker of English, it is worth reading both of the answers by @F.E. and @John Feminella and understanding them both.

For this specific example, either singular or plural is correct, and which you would mostly likely hear in conversation with native speakers all depends on where regionally they are from, their educations and their beliefs as to high jumping and English usage.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .