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"The whole of society and the religious world was strongly impacted by this new religious view."

What should be put here, "was" or "were"?

How should this sentence be interpreted, and under each circumstance, what should be used, singular or plural?

1) "the whole of society" and "the religious world" was/were strongly impacted by this new religious view.

2) The whole of "society and the religious world " was/were strongly impacted by this new religious view.

  • 2
    As you're referring to two distinct entities ("the whole of society" and "the religious world"), I would say it's a plural and you should use "were". I would probably make this more distinct by adding the word "both" to the beginning, so it would be "Both the whole of society and the religious world were strongly impacted by this new religious view." – John Clifford Feb 2 '16 at 9:06
  • @John Clifford Can this sentence be interpreted as 2), The whole of "society and the religious world " and then use "was"? – Shim Shay Feb 2 '16 at 10:11
  • Theoretically yes, but as "society" and "the religious world" are two completely separate things, I would hesitate to group them together like that. – John Clifford Feb 2 '16 at 10:13
  • If you put commas in as if it were a nonessential clause, then 1) becomes more singular in tone (I'm sure John will correct me if I'm wrong): The whole of society, and the religious world, was strongly impacted by this new religious view. – Stu W Feb 10 '16 at 23:02
  • Seems pretty clear to me. 1) "The whole of society" is one thing and "the religious world" is a another. Several different things so you use plural. 2) The "whole" of 'society and the religious world' is one thing, so singular. – Justin Alexander Feb 12 '16 at 19:37
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There are actually two factors here:

  1. Modifier ambiguity. You're correct that "whole" can be interpreted as modifying either both "society and the religious world" or only "society". However, the natural interpretation (in my opinion) is certainly the former. To say the latter I would explicitly prefix the sentence with "both" ("both the whole of society and the religious world"), in which case "are" is certainly correct.

  2. Collective noun. Is "the whole of society and the religious world" being treated as collective noun? In other words, is the impact described happening to the members of society or to the structure of society itself? If it's the former, then it's normal in British Englishto use a plural verb despite the grammatical singularity of "whole of"; otherwise, you should use a singular verb. In American English, meanwhile, a singular verb is expected in both cases.

    This point is best illustrated by the two sentences "My family is big" and "My family are big". In British English, the former would imply that you have many family members while the latter would imply that those family members are obese. In American English only the former would sound grammatical.

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I would suggest using was/were in the following manner:- 1) "the whole of society" and "the religious world" were strongly impacted by this new religious view.

2) The whole of "society and the religious world " was strongly impacted by this new religious view.

However, I would like to reconstruct the sentence as:-

Both the religious world and society as a whole were strongly impacted by this new religious view.

  • 1
    They're both correct depending on your meaning. If' you're grouping society with the religious world, your subject is singular. Use was. If you're talking about two subjects equally affected, it's plural. Use were. aish123's suggested rewrite is good, but there's no need for it. Decide if you're talking about one or two subjects and there is no room for doubt. – John Feb 8 '16 at 7:09
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This may come as a relief to you: you can ignore all the complicated answers! In U.S. English, this one is easy as pie.

I was always, always, always taught this: the way to tell how to conjugate for a subject which sounds like it could be either singular or plural is to simply remove the prepositional phrase from the sentence. You would then conjugate based on the sentence without the phrase.

So in your example, if we remove the prepositional phrase "of society and the religious world," we're left with the sentence, "The whole [was/were] strongly impacted by this new religious view."

Now is it easier to tell which one is right?

It sure is to me. Any perspicacious ear can detect the correct choice is "The whole was strongly impacted by this new religious view." Because saying "the whole were strongly impacted" in American English just…sounds wrong. And that's because it is.

That's the helpful part of the trick: it allows one to rely on their ears for the answer. It's much easier to discern that "the whole" is a singular subject without the prepositional phrase there to obfuscate matters.

After all, it's not "the whole are greater than the sum of its parts," right? :-)

From now on, it should be a cinch to tell what the right choice is in this situation.

Isn't that a cool tip? For it, you can thank Mr. James Briggs, English-language scholar (and tenth-grade teacher) extraordinaire…

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