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My kid's English teacher is teaching that there is exception in use of was/were

"WAS she and her sister at the zoo?" is right.

"WERE she and her sister at the zoo?" is wrong.

AFAIK "She and her sister WERE at the zoo" is supposedly right.

There is no explanation on that exception in the book. Can someone explain this rule or at least point to a source where such rule could be found?


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closed as general reference by MετάEd, Robusto, tchrist, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, StoneyB Dec 2 '12 at 4:45

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

I can't see how this teacher can support this. "She and her sister" is plural, thus "were." I'm aware of no such rule that makes an exception...and what is the definition of the exception? Is the teacher saying that this is a rule for was/were at the beginning of a sentence? – Chris Dec 1 '12 at 18:00
That's why I'm asking. Actually, I did some Googling on the web, and there were plenty of "was she and her sister", which made me even more curious!! – Pygmalion Dec 1 '12 at 18:02
I wasn't assuming you didn't research first. I was questioning how exactly the exception was being defined by the teacher. There may be plenty of examples of the non-standard usage, but I don't believe they are correct for the simple reason I gave. – Chris Dec 1 '12 at 18:09
Google can be misleading. I sampled 20 hits; of those, 12 were at sentence boundaries (“... was. She and ... ”) and 5 represented constructions of the type “it was she and ... ” or "the problem was she and ...". The other three occurred in an error-ridden response to an article in the Huffington Post; on a site which represented English alongside Chinese characters, for which it appeared to be inviting translations; and in the only actual interrogative, a YouTube comment which probably represents the user writing “How old was she” and then adding “and her sister” as an afterthought. – StoneyB Dec 1 '12 at 18:30
There's a long article at fs.gov.za/departments/sac/library/depart/language_articles.htm . I agree with most of it, if I remember correctly. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 1 '12 at 19:58
up vote 8 down vote accepted

In some nonstandard dialects the past tense of be has regular forms in all persons, so that in such dialects Was she and her sister at the zoo? is grammatical. It is not grammatical, however, in Standard English, the dialect which I would expect the school to teach. In Standard English only the first and third person singular have was as the past tense of be. For all other persons, including the one in your example, it is were. I have been trying to find some justification for the use of was on the ground that she and her sister might be perceived as singular, but I have been unable to find any. The teacher should be reprimanded.

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I always do some research before asking. And the most curious thing was that Googling "was she and her sister" gave many times more hits that "were she and her sister". After that I really became curious. – Pygmalion Dec 1 '12 at 18:04
@Pygmalion. You have to be very cautious in conducting such searches. You can't be sure that the results are for the actual construction you have in mind. – Barrie England Dec 1 '12 at 18:17
Maybe there is some sort of misunderstanding between my kid and her teacher. But as far as Googling is concerned, I'd like to point this: indeed there were many fake results like "was. She and her sister...", but there were also plenty of "right" ones "Was she and her sister...". Maybe we're not talking about special rule but common mistake? – Pygmalion Dec 1 '12 at 18:24
@Pygmalion. Or different dialects. – Barrie England Dec 1 '12 at 18:26
@Pygmalion. Standard English is a dialect - the one that should be taught in schools, and usually is. – Barrie England Dec 1 '12 at 18:41

Perhaps the teacher meant to use "and her sister" as an example of a parenthetical phrase, in which case it's not clear whether the verb should be pluralized or not, depending on whether you interpret the subject to include the parenthetical phrase.

The question of whether to pluralize the verb in such a case was already asked on this site. Because there doens't appear to be any clear agreement on the issue, I'd say it comes down to the individual speaker to decide whether they regard their subject as singular or plural in such a case.

The verb form chosen may also depend on what sort of parenthetical phrase is used:
Was/were she (and her sister) at the zoo?
Was/were she, and her sister, at the zoo?
Was/were she--and her sister--at the zoo?
Was/were she as well as her sister at the zoo?

I don't think the teacher should be teaching such usage as a hard-and-fast rule, but considering parenthetical pluralization of the subject might at least explain what the teacher was thinking.

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If the sentence is exactly as you've represented to be, the teacher is spouting nonsense . *"Was she and her sister at the zoo?" is a yes/no question with subject-verb inversion. Turn the question into declarative and it's obvious that "was" is incorrect:

*She and her sister was at the zoo.
*She and her sister was not at the zoo.

These two are ungrammatical, but

She and her sister were at the zoo.
She and her sister were not at the zoo.

these two are grammatical. If the teacher doesn't agree, then the teacher doesn't know enough grammar to be teaching English to anyone. Tell the principal.

3nafish's answer makes some good points about technicalities that may be involved in the teacher's answer, however, so be certain that those weirdly punctuated versions and that final syntactically weird version of this sentence aren't what the teacher was talking about. Not that there's anything wrong with or ungrammatical about 3nafish's examples, mind you. They just aren't the easiest and clearest way of expressing the content of the sentence you quoted -- unless, of course, they are appropriate for the context in which the sentence appears.

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