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Should I use 'was' or 'were' in this example?

I was always delighted when my brother or one of my sisters was/were asked to do them.

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I would use was. –  user21032 May 18 '12 at 22:33
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This question is similar to english.stackexchange.com/questions/57325/… . You should use "were". –  user444214 May 18 '12 at 22:35
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@user444214 Wrong answer. Two demerits. Compounds vary in behavior when they’re conjunctive versus when they’re disjunctive. Singular disjunctive subjects demand singular verbs. Hence you must use “was” here. –  tchrist May 19 '12 at 0:55
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4 Answers

This is one of those situations where English syntax has not yet come up with a good rule. Usage varies, and nothing really feels good; so, while conjoined subjects with varying number are additive

  • Mr. Jones and his three daughters are attending.

disjoined subjects (with or instead of and) with varying number are usually avoided, for precisely this reason.

There are other situations, as well; note

  • (Not even) one voter is going to read this.
  • (Not even) two voters are going to read this.

but

  • More than one voter is going to read this.
  • Fewer than two voters are going to read this.

Or

  • Lots of/Some beans are delicious.
  • Lots of/Some rice is delicious.
  • Lots/Some is/are delicious.

A good reference on the subject is Jerry Morgan's 1972 paper "Verb agreement as a rule of English", in Papers from the Eighth Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society, pp 278-286.

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I thought English did have a rule, but people just didn’t like it. They don’t like that verbs aren’t supposed to agree with objects of prepositions, and they don’t like that a disjunction of singulars in a compound subject is itself logically singular. In all such cases, they figure they’re talking about several things, so they want a plural verb. “Only a single one of these innumerably many things ∗are wrong.” or “A cow or a pig or even a turkey ∗are enough.” –  tchrist May 19 '12 at 0:01
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If nobody follows it, it's not a rule. –  John Lawler May 19 '12 at 1:11
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@JohnLawler Some people do follow it. –  user18036 May 19 '12 at 1:38
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Sorry, John, the subjects on either side of "or" are both clearly singular. As you very well know, the rule is that if the subject is singular, you say "was", not "were". Crystalline. –  user16269 May 19 '12 at 4:26
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@ymar Maybe, but you seem to be disputing the existence of a rule that says "was" is for singulars and "were" is for plurals (plus subjunctives and "you"). –  user16269 May 19 '12 at 10:16
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"I was always delighted when my brother or one of my sisters was/were asked to do them."

The rule in English for when you have disjunction in a compound subject (meaning two of more separate subjects connected by an “or”, or by a “either ... or”, or by an “neither ... nor”), is that the verb agrees with the nearer subject — or nearest, if there are more than two.

The compound disjunctive subject here is “(my) brother” on one side and “one (of my sisters)” on the other. The nearer of the two subjects is “one”, which is as archetypically singular as singulars can ever get: one is always one; one is never many.

Therefore, the number of the subject is singular, and so too must be the number of the corresponding verb. That means that (since we’re not in off in the hazy land of Subjunctivania here :) the verb form needed here must be “was”:

I was always delighted when my brother or one of my sisters was asked to do them.


Edited to Add

Compound subjects of several things all added together are always treated as plural. And when you have a compound subject of disjunctive (or- or nor-separated) things that each have the same concordance, such as in this example, it’s still not so bad.

However, when you have several elements that each would take a different verb form, the formal rule in English about choosing whichever subject sits closest to the verb for that verb’s concordance can result in something strange that many writers, and surely most speakers, would rewrite to avoid the awkward situation.

This is perhaps most readily demonstrated using the verb be, because of its wider variety of distinct forms in both present and past tenses.

  • My bathrooms and my kitchen are all uncarpeted.
  • Neither my bathrooms nor my kitchen is carpeted.
  • Neither my kitchen nor my bathrooms are carpeted.
  • Either my children or I am stuck with taking out the trash every Sunday night.
  • Either I myself, or else my children if they think of it, are stuck with taking out the trash every Sunday night.
  • The cats and the dog were always waiting at the door when I got home.
  • The cats or the dog was always waiting at the door when I got home.
  • The dog or the cats were always waiting at the door when I got home.
  • Are you and your husband both ready?
  • Is either your husband or you yourself ready?
  • Are you or your husband coming?
  • Is your mom or your kids coming to pick you up?
  • Are your kids or your mom coming to pick you up?

In older times, these were even more apparent, since we had thou forms. Percey Bysshe Shelly has a bit of verse where he uses “that or thou art”, so you can see that choosing the nearer subject for concordance isn’t some new notion in English:

One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness, and now rest
Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,
In the still cave of the witch Poesy,

Nonetheless, many of those can make some people uncomfortable. In casual speech, some people simply switch to the plural no matter what formal logic may demand. If you are someone who construes neither to be plural, this may work for you. If you are not, it probably will not. And even if you get away with it in speech, in a written medium, you may wish to avoid such a thing. You’ll have to decide for yourself which of these pairs sounds better/more correct/less bothersome to you:

  • Neither of us is/are ready.
  • Only one of us is/are ready.

I can’t bring myself to say “neither are” or “one are”, but some people can. However, if you are one who doesor perhaps in this case, one who do :) — then you may be able to live with an unfailingly plural concordance even of disjunctive singulars. For example,

  • Neither my bathrooms nor my kitchen ?are carpeted.
  • Either my children or I ?are stuck with taking out the trash every Sunday night.
  • The cats or the dog ?were always waiting at the door when I got home.
  • ?Are either your husband or you yourself ready?
  • ?Are your mom or your kids coming to pick you up?

I wouldn’t say any of those myself if I could possibly help it.

In casual speech without the luxury of time, you may hear things said that could be frowned upon in more formal circumstances.

In writing, you can (and arguably should) take the time to rearrange things so that you don’t have to choose something that fails formal concordance requirements. It’s not a bad idea to rewrite it so you can avoid sounding awkward no matter how “correct” it may be. Awkward and right is still awkward.

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Any answer to a "should I say" question that doesn't include a survey of the actual usage, and instead focuses on advocating any kind of grammatical prescription deserves a downvote. The same goes for the other extremity. Both common prescription and common usage are important for the asker to know. –  user18036 May 19 '12 at 9:54
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@ymar I certainly hope you’re happy now. –  tchrist May 19 '12 at 22:37
    
I am, thank you. I have upvoted your answer. –  user18036 May 19 '12 at 22:40
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@tchrist lol :) Nice 'edit'. –  coleopterist Aug 6 '12 at 15:45
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I would use was, as the subject of the clause—

my brother or one of my sisters

— would be singular: either there is one brother who is asked, or one sister who is asked, but the phrasing explicitly excludes the possibility of more than one sister being asked. Absent any context, I might further infer that only one person can be asked, negating the possibility of both the brother and one or more sisters being asked, and again keeping the verb singular for agreement.

Things could be more ambiguous if phrased differently, as noted in John Lawler's answer.

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Let us consider 1. I was always delighted when my brother WAS asked to do them : obviously correct 2. I was always delighted when one of my sisters WAS asked to do them : obviously correct 3. I was always delighted when he or she WAS asked to do them : obviously correct

It follows that WAS is to be used in this case.

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Unfortunately, nothing really follows from this exercise. The answer is not as obvious as you make it out to be. Please peruse the other answers on this page. –  coleopterist Aug 6 '12 at 15:49
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