I used the sentence "there was only 4 channels on tele" (reminiscing about the good old days before digital TV!), but I wasn't sure if I was right, so tried were instead of was.

It still doesn't feel right, even though I found an article that stated that, as the subject was plural and came after the verb, it should be were- but it still doesn't feel right! I've got it in my head that if I had just said channels it would be were, but as I said "only 4 channels" it should be was.

Should I use were or was?

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    Your question appears to be Does the word 'only' convert a plural object into a singular? If so, the answer is no. If it's something else, please clarify. – Tim Lymington Jul 21 '13 at 20:11
  • "There used to be only four channels on TV" eliminates the muddle between was/were and expresses more accurately your meaning. (I remember when there were only three!) – Mari-Lou A Jul 22 '13 at 0:09
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    In fact, long before there were 4 channels, there was only 1 channel (in the UK), namely the BBC. – TrevorD Jul 22 '13 at 0:12
  • @Mari-LouA I certainly remember when there were only 2; I don't think we had TV when there was only 1! – TrevorD Jul 22 '13 at 0:17
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    I remember when TV was in black and white and there were no commercials during films! – Mari-Lou A Jul 22 '13 at 0:27

For some people there's has become an invariable word, irrespective of number; but I'm not aware that anybody extends this to there was. (I'm not talking about non-standard dialects in which was is regularly used for plurals: we was etc: that's a different thing).

So, no, I don't think I would regard there was (only) four channels as grammatical in standard dialects, with or without the only.

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  • I have heard many Americans (possibly mainly West-Coasters?) use ‘there was’ with a plural subject, so I think the extension to the past tense is quite common in colloquial speech. A regular Google search for “there was two” (with quotes) yields nearly 20 million hits. I would not, however, consider it standard in any form of written English. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '13 at 20:30
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: I suspect that most of those ghits are people whose dialect would allow them to say we was, and so not the case I was talking about. But I have no way of knowing whether my suspicion is right or not. – Colin Fine Jul 21 '13 at 20:37
  • No, this includes people who otherwise speak fairly neutral, Broadcast American dialects and would always say ‘we are/were’. I also don’t think the number of people who speak such dialects would be big enough to account for 20 million hits on the Internet. There aren’t that many dialects that have we was in any but the most informal of registers. “We was” (with quotes) gives 6.2 million hits (less than one third of what “there was two” gets), despite the fact that ‘we were’ is a much more common and less narrow phrase than ‘there were two’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '13 at 21:14
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: OK. – Colin Fine Jul 21 '13 at 21:39

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