“Was” or “were” in sentence where no noun subject exists



I can't figure out if the below sentence should use “was” or “were”, since I'm not sure what the subject of the sentence is. Is the sentence incomplete? How do I handle this kind of sentence, where no nouns or pronouns are present?

Knowing how to jump and being able to run was / were crucial during my high jump career.


Posted 2014-12-02T20:47:14.230

Reputation: 83

1A subject that is an "and" coordination of clauses generally takes a singular verb (though, it is possible to use a plural verb when the predicate treats the coordinates as separate items). So, it seems to me, that "was" is probably the preferred verb in your example, though "were" would probably be okay too. (There's related stuff in the 2002 CGEL, page 508.) – F.E. – 2014-12-02T23:10:31.160

1@F.E. I was wondering when you were going to get round to this. Don't want to link to one of your other posts? – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-12-03T02:34:16.970



  1. Knowing how to jump and being able to run was / were crucial during my high jump career.

As to the subject of the OP's example sentence:

  • The subject is the expression: [Knowing how to jump] and [being able to run].
  • That subject is in the form of an 'and'-coordination.
  • The coordinates are two '-ing' clauses (which are non-finite clauses).

If a subject is in the form of an 'and'-coordination of clauses, then the default for subject-verb agreement, w.r.t. number and person, is singular and third person; and that is what is often used. In the case of the OP's example, that would mean the use of the singular verb "was":

  1. Knowing how to jump and being able to run was crucial during my high jump career.

Though, it is possible for the writer to use the plural verb "were" if that would be more appropriate due to what is in the rest of the sentence or due to the writer's intent for that sentence.

Here's a related excerpt from the 2002 CGEL. On page 508:

And-coordinations of clauses

Subjects with the form of an and-coordination of clauses generally take singular verbs:


  • i. [That the form was submitted on the very last day and that the project had not been properly costed] suggests that the application was prepared in a rush.

  • ii. [How the dog escaped and where it went] remains a mystery.

It is nevertheless possible to have a plural verb when the predicate treats the coordinates as expressing separate facts, questions, or the like:


  • i. [That the form was submitted on the very last day and that the project had not been properly costed] are two very strong indications that the application was prepared in a rush.

  • ii. [How the dog escaped and where it went] are questions we may never be able to answer.

Notice how the two examples in [30] have predicative complements that are noun phrases that are plural in number ("two very strong indications . . .", "questions . . .").

Also, notice that the CGEL examples in [29-30] use subordinate content clauses (which are finite clauses) for its examples, while the OP's example is using two non-finite clauses which just happen to not have subjects in them. (For a version that is similar to the OP's example but instead uses '-ing' clauses with subjects could be something like: "My knowing how to jump and my being able to run was crucial during my high jump career.")

(Aside: In general, the default subject-verb agreement, w.r.t. number and person, for a clause can be considered to be singular and third person. Usually there has to be something explicit in the sentence for that subject-verb agreement to be otherwise.)

Note that the 2002 CGEL is the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.


Posted 2014-12-02T20:47:14.230

Reputation: 5 118

I appreciate your detailed answer. However, I am still a bit confused - do you mean that singular and third person is the default (and correct in this case) because we are talking about two clauses joined by an and-coordination, rather than just two nouns joined by an and-coordination? If so, how do you determine that these are two clauses - are we not missing the subject in them? I can see how the examples from 2002 CGEL have two clauses, so there it makes sense to me. – AnneS1 – 2014-12-04T00:53:26.697

@AnneS1 Yes, if the coordination involves clauses, then the default agreement uses a singular verb. CGEL used content clauses (finite clauses) for its examples, while your example seems to be using non-finite clauses which just happen to not have subjects in them. – F.E. – 2014-12-04T03:45:58.187

1@Araucaria Oh, yup, like "Bacon and eggs is what I like for breakfast"? :D . . . I added info, let me know if there's anything that could be tweaked or changed or added or corrected -- or you could edit it yourself if you wanted. :) – F.E. – 2014-12-04T19:34:35.670

Hey, what happened to your comment on that other post? I'm going to cogitate more on way back home. Yes, bacon and eggs - that's what made me think of link to your other post(s) :) Btw I was thinking about you when I suggested posting this Q over here Seem inviting? I'm in trouble n don't have time ... and you're the ideal respondent on here for this one, surely?

– Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-12-04T20:39:27.057

@Araucaria Er, I saw that other thread, and was going to put in a comment with the links to the first two chapters of the 2002 CGEL, but those links are now broken. To even write a post that is on the right path for that thread, it would take a long rainy afternoon, a very, very long weekend, and the right mood. I'm got too much stuff to even entertain doing something like that. – F.E. – 2014-12-04T21:49:58.957

@Araucaria Also, there's "Four dogs and two cats is what's needed for the children's pet show", er, or do teachers prefer "Four dogs and two cats are what are needed for the children's pet show", er . . . :D – F.E. – 2014-12-04T21:52:49.147

@F.E. No, that's all fine with us. Just need tyo be able to give the most generally usable guidelines that all - and take into account how long we actually have with them (usually not very long). There's also two hundred pounds and fifty pence is a lot of money etc :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-12-04T22:17:12.687

1@Araucaria Er, I've spent a good hunk of the last three days collecting some info and reviewing stuff in CGEL and floundering about in editing that post of mine over there, taking some wrong paths and what not. I think I've finally gotten enough info reviewed where I should be able to now properly answer that question on adjectives with to-infinitivals. Maybe soon I'll get that answer done! :D – F.E. – 2014-12-07T04:03:59.310


@Araucaria How about checking and verifying my answer post for me? Thanks. :) -- http://ell.stackexchange.com/a/41292/8758

– F.E. – 2014-12-07T12:05:56.170

1I love the beginning, it's really very well considered and presented (for teachs), much better than mine. It looks as though you might be adding a section at a later date? If so, I think the later ditransitive passive section (4.4-4.6) and also possibly (5.4-5.6) might fit in better that next section? It's quite a lot to read through and cogitate about - and then find out that it doesn't really have a direct bearing on point #A. This bit section might be a bit sharper without those bits, imo ( -or it might be just that I'm struggling to follow a little bit, no surprises :)) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-12-07T13:20:43.283

1@Araucaria I'm thinking of adding to the "short answer" a bit about looking at a truncated version of the two examples, and using them to show how it seems that the truncated version must (?) be good in order for the original version to also be good in order for the matrix subject to be the antecedent for the infinitival's subject gap. E.g. *"The medicine is easy [ to be taken ]"* is no good, nor is *"The medicine is easy"*. While *"The medicine is ready [ to be taken ]"* is good, as is *The medicine is ready"*. Do you think that observation is accurate? – F.E. – 2014-12-07T18:16:57.937

1@F.E. Let me churn it around for a bit. It's definitely an interesting ob. :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-12-07T18:32:33.163

@F.E. So, after a little bit of rumination, I reckon that that'll work for tough or control, but not for adjectives like possible, inevitable etc: A fight was inevitable seems ok, but a fight was inevitable to happen seems ungrammatical to me. Likewise with possible. But for so-called tough and control adjectives it seems - on some brief experimentation - to be quite a good guide ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-12-08T00:18:24.313

@Araucaria Er, you're testing the opposite. It's relatively easy to create a bad long version from a good truncated version--all you have to do is add a silly infinitival. E.g. add "to swim" to your good truncated version to give a bad "a fight was inevitable to swim". But can you give a long version that is good, but its truncated version is bad? – F.E. – 2014-12-08T05:01:34.950

I'd have thought that was a dead cert. I don't know of any adjective that must take an infinitival complement ... I know that the structure of the infinitival clause is determined by the adjective, but the clause is always kinda 'adjunct-like', it seems to me, ONLY in the sense that it's an optional element within AdjP. (i.e. it's not really an adjunct because it's licensed, but it's always optional) :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-12-08T11:13:30.587

@F.E. So, don't know if you remember our what's his name discussion the other day? You were saying that you thought his name could be the PC there, even under a normal reading. Something was bugging me, I couldn't put my finger on it. Just came up in an explanation in a lesson. It's this: we could try and do a pronoun substitution there to see what case the substitute for 'his name' is, however that pronoun would be 'it'. It we substitute it with a gendered pronoun though, we'd get 'What's she' - seems ok - versus what's her which is definitely marked if not ungrammatical, No? :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-12-09T16:14:43.347

@Araucaria "What's his name?" is ambiguous, as it could come from either "What is his name?" or "His name is what?" In the 1st one, "Tom is his name" could be used in a specific rare context; and if "his name" cannot be a PC here (can only be predicand) and thus has to be the subject, then that would mean that "Tom" is the PC and that that example sentence is one of the rarer ones where the ascribing PC comes first?! Yes? I haven't looked at this to see, though it might be quite reasonable. (Perhaps "What is it?" is similar?) BUT, there's "Would Tom be his name?", and "Tom" is subject. – F.E. – 2014-12-09T19:09:39.230

@Araucaria (cont.) That is: "Tom would be his name" --> "Would Tom be his name?" --> "Would what be his name?" --> "What would be his name?" --> "What is his name?", where "Tom"/"What" can be subject in all of them. And that means that "his name" can be PC in all of them. :) – F.E. – 2014-12-09T19:23:26.097

@F.E. Yes, I can get that, I can get it with what is her? too. But it seems to me to be the less likely reading (i.e. more way out there though perfectly possible). Your Would Tom be his name; "Would what be his name?" is veryinteresting, it's an "*inverted in situ*" question methinks? – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-12-09T19:29:33.083

@Araucaria Or the use of an echo "what" within a closed interrogative? :) – F.E. – 2014-12-09T19:35:31.203

@F.E. Aren't echo "what"s in situ? But, yes! Think so :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-12-09T19:36:59.473

@Araucaria I'm too lazy to check, so, er, about "May God bless you" what type of clause is that again? (formal optative? whatever that is) But not imperative? :) – F.E. – 2014-12-09T19:41:51.637

1@F.E. I left that one well alone!! Yes, definitely not imperative!! :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-12-09T19:47:10.687


The subjects are "knowing how to jump" and "being able to run", so were is correct since there are two subjects.

More verbosely, you can imagine the sentence as if it were written,

"The knowledge of how to jump and the ability to run were crucial during my high jump career."

This is structurally equivalent to

"Knowledge and ability were crucial during my high jump career."

so hopefully it is clear that were is correct.

If the writer intended "knowledge and ability" to be considered as one collective thing, rather than two distinct things or facets of the same idea, then was would be correct. For example, consider

"The entire town lay in ruins. Death and destruction was everywhere."

Here, "death and destruction" is meant to be considered as one phrase, not two separate things, so was is correct.

John Feminella

Posted 2014-12-02T20:47:14.230

Reputation: 666


This is a tough one. We've got two good answers, one which argues for "was" and one which argues for "were". In point of fact, it really depends on what the speaker/writer meant, what the hearer/reader expects and what is in most common (and therefore expected) usage. That is, do the two coordinates on both sides of the "and" have to be considered together, or can they be considered separately.

Is the knowledge of jumping and the ability to run (see, I just used singular "is" instead of "are") a collective group of things needed to succeed at high jumping?


Are the knowledge of jumping and the ability to run a pair of things (perhaps there are others) needed to succeed at high jumping?

In this specific example, it depends on what the writer/speaker thinks is the case, and similarly, for the receiver (listener/reader) of the information.

For someone who is not a native speaker of English, it is worth reading both of the answers by @F.E. and @John Feminella and understanding them both.

For this specific example, either singular or plural is correct, and which you would mostly likely hear in conversation with native speakers all depends on where regionally they are from, their educations and their beliefs as to high jumping and English usage.


Posted 2014-12-02T20:47:14.230

Reputation: 141