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In the sentence from the title, is it was or were?

To me, was sounds weird because there is a plural form coming right after, but were also sounds weird because it is one problem.

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  1. One of the main problems was the tourists using the wrong passes

  2. *One of the main problems were the tourists using the wrong passes.(ungrammatical)

The Subject of the first sentence is one of the main problems. This noun phrase is grammatically singular. It is also semantically singular. Although the plural word problems is next to the verb, this does not affect verb agreement here. Proximity agreement, where the noun phrase nearest the verb can determine the agreement of the verb, sometimes applies with co-ordinations and lists. For example:

  • In the room, there was a double bed, a large drinks cabinet ...

Here the verb seems to be determined by the noun phrase a double bed (don't let this fool you into thinking that this is part of the Subject. The Subject of this sentence is the word there).

There are also situations where the word one in a noun phrase can override the grammatical and semantic plurality of the noun phrase and cause singular verb agreement:

  • He's one of those people who always wants to have the last word.

There are also situations where a noun phrase is grammatically singular but semantically plural. In these situations either singular or plural verb agreement is grammatical:

  • One in ten people loses their wallets on the trip.
  • One in ten people lose their wallets on the trip.

Here one in ten people is grammatically singular but semantically plural (it doesn't refer to an individual, but the proportion of individuals). The agreement of the verb can be determined either by the grammatical number or the semantic plurality.

However, in the Original Poster's example, the grammatical number of the noun phrase is singular, the noun phrase is also semantically singular. There is no co-ordination or negation to complicate the issue. The plurality of the last noun in the noun phrase cannot override the normal agreement of the verb here.

Incidentally, the example (1) above would sound perfectly natural to nearly all native speakers.

  • How do you explain this Ngram Viewer results where are after there is more broadly used than is when a plural noun people is used. – user140086 Jan 3 '16 at 15:01
  • Sentences that start with "there" are called expletive sentences and the subject is not "there". I wrote a post on these kinds of sentences. Trouble happens when the subject is compound and people don't know whether to use is or are...."In the room, there are a table and chair." Most speakers will use "is" because of the proximity of "table." – michael_timofeev Jan 5 '16 at 16:05
  • @Araucaria it was the best of times and the worst of times. Where's the subject? – michael_timofeev Jan 6 '16 at 10:11
  • @michael_timofeev The subject is it! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 6 '16 at 10:16
  • @michael_timofeev Hi, I opened a chat room so that we don't have to fit our conversation into tiny comment boxes. It's here – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 6 '16 at 11:23
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To me, was sounds weird because there is a plural form coming right after, but were also sounds weird because it is one problem.

It could sound weird to you, but that's right.

One is a component of your group (the main problems) and it is the subject of this sentence.

The sentence is referring indeed to a specific component (One) of the plural form, hence the correct form of the verb is the 3rd singular person, that is was.

With of the main problems, you're just adding details about which group the subject is part of.

  • Dear downvoter, would you at least comment what is the reason of your downvote? – Alberto Solano Jan 3 '16 at 17:21
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The correct sentence is 'One of the main problems was people doing X'. Here, the subject is the problem 'people doing X' which is singular and hence singular verb 'was' would be used. It may sound weird because we tend to make verb agree with the immediate subject ('problems' in this case).

  • The Subject is "One of the problems" ---> "[Was] [one of the main problems] ...." Here you see subject-auxiliary inversion for the question form. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 3 '16 at 16:43
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The verb should agree with the subject one, so you would say, "One of the main problems was people doing X." The phrase main problems, which is where I think you're getting the false sense that you should use were instead of was, is not actually part of the subject because it is part of a prepositional phrase. In as much as it may seem to change the number in a subject, a prepositional phrase is never part of the subject and so never changes the number of the subject. Therefore, despite the seeming plurality of many problems, the subject of the sentence remains a singular one that agrees with was not were.

  • Nice answer. But the prepositional phrase is technically part of the Subject. It's not the Head word in the Subject phrase. I think that's what you're angling at. :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 3 '16 at 12:15
  • @Araucaria: You're mistaken, a prepositional phrase is never part of the subject. A prepositional phrase may adjectivally modify a subject, but doing so doesn't make it part of the subject. You can check any grammar website to verify this. As an example, Grammar Bytes states: "The subject of a verb will never be part of a prepositional phrase." (chompchomp.com/terms/subject.htm) – Benjamin Harman Jan 5 '16 at 0:09
  • Here's a test for beginner syntax students. If you want to identify the Subject of a declarative sentence change the sentence into an interrogative. The phrase that swaps places with the auxiliary verb is the Subject. "[One of the main problems][ was] people doing X" ---->"[Was][one of the main problems] people doing X?" – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 5 '16 at 10:29
  • You might find this interesting, btw: Words, phrases and functions – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 5 '16 at 10:39
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    That link you gave has some incorrect information. But its point about prepositional phrases is correct. A Subject is never part of a prepositional phrase. This is not at all the same thing as "a prepositional phrase is never part of a Subject" - which is completely untrue. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 5 '16 at 10:44

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