was vs were

When writing this sentence:

The deaths of these people were / was to have far-reaching effects for Rome...

'The deaths of these people' is a singular event, that is having the effects, or would I use the plural because it's deaths plural and the people are plural...??

  • 1
    Right. Singular. It depends, though. See the broader context. "Reinhardt was protesting the idea that the deaths of enemy soldiers do not matter ..." – Kris Nov 16 '18 at 9:21
  • If it is singular (treating the deaths as a single historical event) then "The death of these was...". If "deaths" is in the plural, then it has to be "were" – user323578 Apr 16 at 11:20
  • It is not a singular event. What are you on about. It is several separate events. Which is why it is plural in the first place. – RegDwigнt Aug 14 at 13:42
  • This provides an interesting study into the choice between the non-count (the death of these people) and the count usages of a word. Obviously, the choice is determined by whether the separate events are wished to be considered separately or not ... but there are doubtless times when the count or non-count usage is less idiomatic. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 14 at 13:54

Only plural agreement ("The deaths of these people were...") seems possible to me. The most common examples of "notional agreement" are with "collective nouns" like group or crowd that are morphologically singular, but that semantically refer to multiple individuals. Plural noun phrases rarely take singular agreement in English, and I think that when they do, it's usually a matter of a particular word developing a special usage pattern, rather than an example of any more generally productive process of notional agreement. (For example, news is morphologically plural, but takes singular verb agreement: I think this can be seen as the result of a historical move of the noun news from the lexical category of plural nouns to the lexical category of singular nouns.)

The presence of the prepositional phrase "of these people" between the deaths and the verb may make it more difficult to judge the acceptability of was vs were, but I think it's clear that was would be bad in a sentence like "These deaths were/*was to have far-reaching effects for Rome" or "Their deaths were/*was to have far-reaching effects for Rome."

The "singularity" of the event doesn't change based on whether you refer to it as "the deaths of these people", "their deaths" or "these deaths", so I think the examples in the preceding paragraph show that the mere fact that a plural noun phrase can be understood as referring to a single event is not sufficient to warrant the use of a singular verb.

As Robin Betts pointed out in a comment, the singular noun death would be used with the singular verb was.

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    How about 'The death of these people was...'? – Robin Betts Nov 16 '18 at 9:48
  • @RobinBetts: That would certainly take singular agreement. – sumelic Nov 16 '18 at 10:03
  • It is about the 2 Gracchus brothers and their deaths took place 10 years apart, so it has to be deaths - but I was treating it as a singular event because of the ramifications of 'the Gracchi' on the course of the Roman empire. I don't think it would work with 'the death of these 2 people, etc', would it? – Laura Nov 16 '18 at 10:40
  • How did they die?  I realize that these terms don't fit well when talking about only two people, especially if they died at different times, but would you be able to talk about the massacre of these people, or the slaughter of these people, or some similar singular word that can refer to multiple people simultaneously?  How about elimination or overthrow? – Scott Nov 18 '18 at 5:21
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    @Laura I can't see any problem with using "death" in the singular when you are talking about the historical consequences. People might assume they happened at the same time but either that doesn't matter or you have/will explain that elsewhere. – user323578 Apr 16 at 11:32

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