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Should I use "wasn't" or "weren't" in the following sentence?

My last couple of years as an Edison Eagle wasn’t all about fighting and bad friendships.

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It should be weren't, because the subject is plural (years). Sometimes a subject containing a plural noun can be considered singular as a whole, but that is usually not the case. Using wasn't here may be acceptable to some people, but weren't is really better here. –  Cerberus May 31 '12 at 0:12
    
@Cerberus: It grinds my gears, but a lot of people are happy to write things like "a couple was sitting". They're certainly not massively outnumbered by those writing "a couple were sitting". So although OP's version seems singularly odd to me, maybe a lot of people thinks it's okay. –  FumbleFingers May 31 '12 at 1:53
    
@FumbleFingers: or maybe just a couple does. –  JAM May 31 '12 at 2:23
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@FumbleFingers: But that sounds much more common to my canine ears, if it means a romantic couple. And those Google-Books hits seem to be about romantic couples. –  Cerberus May 31 '12 at 2:42
    
I guess in Britain they say "Rolls Royce were ..." but in the US they say "Rolls Royce was ...". Should "couple" be treated similarly? –  GEdgar Jun 24 '12 at 0:19

5 Answers 5

This should definitely be weren't, as the subject of the sentence is years (which is plural). Without as an Edison Eagle, the sentence would be:

My last couple of years weren't all about fighting…

Adding as an Edison Eagle will not change the basic sentence structure, so the sentence should still read:

My last couple of years as an Edison Eagle weren't all about fighting and bad friendships.

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dammit, i got beat in posting by Cerberus by a few seconds. –  superdemongob May 31 '12 at 0:35
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Who's to say the subject of the sentence isn't a couple of years? –  FumbleFingers May 31 '12 at 1:55
    
My last bottle of pills are in the cupboard. –  Jonas Meyer May 31 '12 at 8:58

It should be wasn't. To see why just take the sentence and eliminate some things that don't change the structure:

My last couple of years as an Edison Eagle wasn’t all about fighting and bad friendships.

The "of years" just clarifies what the couple is. And "as an Edison Eagle" also just clarifies. Remove them.

So if someone asks you, "How were your years as an Edison Eagle?". Do you answer:

My last couple wasn’t all about fighting and bad friendships.

or

My last couple weren’t all about fighting and bad friendships.

Clearly, it's the former. "Last couple" is singular.

Update: Oddly, the usage frequency seems pretty close to equal. I have no idea why. "Couple" is clearly singular.

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Formal agreement requires weren’t. That’s because the subject of the sentence is the plural years, premodified by my last couple of. However, in terms of notional agreement, My last couple of years can be seen as an integrated whole that calls for a singular verb. Which you choose depends partly on your own view of the relative merits of formal and notional agreement, but also on the likely reaction of your intended audience to your choice.

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It is certainly "weren't". "Last couple of years" is plural, and hence it should be "weren't".

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In most noun phrases with of it is the grammatical number of the head noun, not the noun in the prepositional phrase following it, that determines the grammatical number of the verb. So, we write:

  • The bottle of pills is missing.
  • The bottles of water are now cheaper.

But couple, in the noun phrase a couple of, is what the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p349) calls a number-transparent quantificational noun, meaning that it allows the number of the oblique to percolate up to determine the number of the whole NP. [Oblique is the term the CGEL uses for the noun in the prepositional phrase beginning with of, and NP stands for noun phrase.]

As well as a couple of, the CGEL lists a lot of, the rest of, plenty and others as number-transparent quantificational nouns. The upward percolation is exemplified with the phrase a lot of:

  • A lot of money was spent on travel.
  • A lot of protesters were arrested.

On this basis it might seem clear that the OP's sentence should read:

  • My last couple of years as an Edison Eagle weren't all about fighting and bad friendships

since years percolates up to determine the plural of the verb. But, it is in fact not so clear, because plural nouns are often conceptualized as singular entities. That's why we say, for example:

  • Ten years is a long time.
  • $20,000 dollars is a lot of money.

The CGEL uses the term override for this common mismatch in grammatical number between subject and verb. So, if the writer is strongly conceptualizing the two years as a singular measure of time, then :

  • My last couple of years as an Edison Eagle wasn't all about fighting and bad friendships

would seem to be acceptable - although I suspect that rather more people would consider wasn't to be a mistake than weren't.

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+1 for quoting the phrase number-transparent quantificational noun. –  Peter Shor May 31 '12 at 23:13

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