Questions on WAS and WHO

By Maeve Maddox

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A reader poses two grammar questions, one on linking verb agreement and one on pronoun case.

Question One
What is the rule that governs which linking verb to use when the subject is singular and the predicate is plural?

The highlight for me ______ the poems that Mary wrote and read.” was or were?

The rule for linking verbs is the same as for any verb: Verbs agree in number with their subjects.

When the verb to be is used with a predicate nominative, writers are often misled by false attraction to the word that appears as the complement of the verb.

Reminder: A predicate nominative is a noun or pronoun that completes a linking verb. The noun, pronoun, or adjective that completes a linking verb is called a complement.

In the sample sentence, the subject noun, highlight, is singular. The word that completes the linking verb is the plural noun poems.

The fact that poems is plural is irrelevant. Why? Because verbs agree with their subjects in number.

Here is the correct construction:

The highlight for me was the poems that Mary wrote and read.

The correct construction is not always the one that sounds best. Most of us probably cringe to hear the singular verb was so close to the plural noun poems. The solution is to rework the sentence:

The poems that Mary wrote and read were the highlight of the evening for me.

Question Two
What is the rule that determines if a word should be nominative or objective if the word functions as both a subject and object in the same sentence?

This prize goes to _______ gets the highest score. whoever or whomever?

This question relates to grammatical case.

In an earlier form of English, all nouns had special case endings, but in modern English, only pronouns show case.

Note: Next to verbs, pronouns produce the greatest number of errors committed by modern English speakers. These errors can be avoided by learning to tell if a pronoun is being used as subject or an object.

In the sample sentence, the correct choice is whoever:

This prize goes to whoever gets the highest score.

I can hear the wails go up. “Get a grip, Maeve! That pronoun follows the preposition to. Any fool should know that the object of a preposition is in the objective case!”

True. The object of a preposition takes the objective case, and the object form of who is whom.

However, in the sample sentence, the pronoun is not the object of the preposition to.

Most of the time, the object of a preposition will be a noun or a pronoun, but sometimes, the object of a preposition is a clause.

In this sentence, the clause “whoever gets the highest score” is the object of the preposition to.

The word whoever does not serve as “both object and subject.” Its only function in this sentence is to serve as the subject of the verb gets.

Many modern speakers have given up the struggle with whom and use who indiscriminately as subject and object. Several modern authorities feel that this is permissible.

Some speakers have the notion that whom is somehow “more elegant” than who and use the object form as a subject. This is never cool.

Who vs Whom

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2 Responses to “Questions on WAS and WHO”

  • James Hallowell

    I am a longtime subscriber to Daily Writing Tips, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the ebooks you mention, and I would love to. -James

  • Barbara Youree

    These are common errors that even well educated people can make. You make it simple for anyone to understand how the correct answers are correct.

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