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A friend of mine and I were having a linguistics argument (actually, this one), and she brought up as evidence the "plural versus singular conjugation" of the past-tense form of "to be", i.e. "was/were".

I'm sure we all know the 6-form conjugation table:

  • I [verb]
  • You (s.) [verb]
  • He/She/One/It [verb]
  • We [verb]
  • You (pl.) [verb]
  • They [verb]

I'm equally sure we all know that the first three are singular, and the latter three are plural. Now, interestingly, we both agreed on the answer to the original question ("Yes"), but my friend put forth as evidence that You (s.) is conjugated with the "plural conjugation", namely "were", just like We and They, whereas I and He/She/One/It are conjugated with the "singular conjugation", "was".

My argument was that verbs are not conjugated in plural and singular forms, and the fact that "to be" in many tenses seems to follow that pattern is just a coincidence, an artifact of its highly irregular nature.

So, which of us is "right"? Do verbs have explicitly "plural" versus "singular" conjugations, or do they simply have the 6 conjugations (per tense), and "to be" just happens to look like "plural" versus "singular" by mere coincidence?

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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Do verbs have explicitly "plural" versus "singular" conjugations, or do they simply have the 6 conjugations (per tense), and "to be" just happens to look like "plural" versus "singular" by mere coincidence?

I'd say that you are right. English verbs have, in principle, six forms, though the maximal number of distinct forms is four, and that only for the present tense of to be. The verb form is entirely determined by the subject. The fact that the subject pronoun you can be both singular or plural doesn't change this at all: you always requires the same verb agreement.

BTW, you can demonstrate that the English "singular" conjugation is in fact not a unitary conjugation by throwing back in the old 2sg thou:

I am, thou art, he is

I was, thou wast, he was

I say, thou sayest, he says

The 1sg and the 3sg are only the same in a few verbs and tenses, and the old 2sg is always different from both of them. The plural forms of we/you/they are always the same for all verbs in all tenses, so as far as that goes it's reasonable to talk about a "plural" verb form. But there is no one "singular" verb form.

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Doesn't the present-tense of "to be" have only 3 distinct forms? Am, are, is, are, are, are? Or is the 4th the old "thou art"? –  Kromey Apr 22 '11 at 19:17
    
@Kromey, yes, thou art is the fourth: I am, thou art, he is, we are, you are, they are. –  JSBձոգչ Apr 22 '11 at 19:24
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Thanks, @JSBangs! English is fun! –  Kromey Apr 22 '11 at 19:29
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You takes the plural verb form in English, and was indeed originally plural though used for politeness for the singular second person instead of thou.

Thou took its own verb forms when conjugating verbs. For example

  • Thou art
  • Thou hast
  • Thou makest
  • Thou knowest

and even had past forms.

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So that page looks like the (original) second-person singular past-tense conjugation of "to be" was "Thou were", just like the (supposedly plural) conjugation used with We, You (pl.), and They. Which seems to soundly disprove the singular/plural theory, doesn't it? –  Kromey Apr 22 '11 at 18:55
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The original Early Modern English conjugation was indeed 'thou were' with the alternatives 'thou wert' and 'thou wast' developing later (by analogy with other verbs?).

Arguably 'were' singular was different from 'were' plural as it derived from a different form in Old English, but since by this time both forms were spellt and pronounced the same, I think it's pretty moot.

The OE forms were:

ic eom / ic wæs þu eart / þu wære he is / he wæs we sindon / we wæron ge sindon / ge wæron hie sindon / hie wæron

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There is no plural of verbs in English. However, there is a singular form: 3rd person singular, simple present. Curiously, the verb takes an "s". I play vs. She plays. This distinction must be taken into consideration with certain nouns that are considered plural. For example; committee; The committee want_ sandwiches for lunch, they are hungry.

As for the verb to be, its extreme irregularity is the exception that confirms the rule. The verb to be is unique.

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Many exceptions come from the earlier norm. Just as English used to have grammatical gender, it is possible that it had too in its history. –  theUg Feb 27 '13 at 16:39
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