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Primary clause uses singular, subordinate co-reference is plural, what verb to use in English?

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I sometimes find myself writing sentences with subordinate clauses where there is number mismatch between the primary and subordinate clauses. For example:

The oath he swore, those words about serving all the people and not just the favored ones, (was | were) just fluff to him.

The general rule I learned is to ignore subordinate clauses when resolving cases like this. The "outer" sentence, which contains the verb, is "The oath he swore (verb) just fluff to him", and so the correct verb is "was". But the subordinate clause uses a plural (the "words" that make up the oath), so it looks funny to write "was" immediately after.

I am aware that I can rewrite the sentence to avoid this problem. My question isn't about how to write it. My question is: does English grammar have any rules about verb number in such phrases (including, possibly, "don't do it because you cannot win")?

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The general rule I learned is to ignore subordinate clauses when resolving cases like this. The "outer" sentence, which contains the verb, is "The oath he swore (verb) just fluff to him", and so the correct verb is "was".

That is correct, "was" is the grammatically correct choice in your example sentence. Basically, you should be able to delete the nonrestrictive clause and the sentence should remain grammatically correct.

My question is: does English grammar have any rules about verb number in such phrases (including, possibly, "don't do it because you cannot win")?

While some might recommend not creating this sort of construction, there's no actual grammar rule against having differing plurality between the primary and subordinate clauses. It just probably won't sound natural.


But the subordinate clause uses a plural (the "words" that make up the oath), so it looks funny to write "was" immediately after.

I am aware that I can rewrite the sentence to avoid this problem. My question isn't about how to write it.

Even though your question isn't about it, I'll answer it anyway. Grammatically correct does not always mean natural. That's why many writers suggest that you read your work out loud and rework awkward sentences. If it sounds off to you, you should rewrite it to sound more natural rather than worrying about grammar.

2 comments

Sorry, I meant that the rule might be "don't do it"; I didn't mean that as an example. :-) ‭Monica Cellio‭ about 1 month ago

@MonicaCellio Ah, I see. While it might be a "don't do it" as a recommendation, there's no grammar rule against having differing plurality between the primary and subordinate clauses. I've edited my answer. ‭Moshi‭ about 1 month ago

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