Do I need to use “was” or “were” in this sentence?


I was looking at an IELTS writing task 1 question last night which involved describing changes to a map over two years. When a student asked me which of the following sentences was correct I had a sudden brain fart and couldn’t think of the answer. So which one is it?

Beside the house there was a post office, three small houses and an elementary school.

Beside the house there were a post office, three small houses and an elementary school.

My initial thought was that it has to be “was” because it is followed by “a post office”, however there are three items in this list so maybe it could be “were”.

Any help would be appreciated.


Edit: yeah, I’m a dumbass.

There are three cars on the street. It is a fact, but I use ARE :smiley:

There are three subjects in the sentence (post office, three small houses, elementary school), so you should use the plural form of the verb, were.

This might be useful:

Swing and a miss from me, I guess. Though I do think that leaves the sentence sounding awkward even if it’s grammatically correct.

But the sentence in this explanation is slightly different. I have no problem with “A man, a woman and a dog were in the park.” as there are clearly three separate singular subjects before the verb so it must be “were”.

The problem with my original sentence is that the verb is coming before the objects. I think that the original sentence was something like:

In 1968, there was a post office, three small houses and an elementary school beside the house.

To my northern English brain, that sentence sounds perfectly acceptable. However, when students start to question you…

Thanks for all of the replies so far.


I wonder if I should provoke the hornet’s nest of Anglo-Saxon supremacism… :smiling_imp:

For what? probably nobody would really understand them a word :smiley:

Well, there are only so many hours in each day. I think that topic ran its course anyway… :sleeping:

First we have to decide whether “correct” English ought to be defined according to sets of rules compiled by God knows who(m), or according to how it is actually spoken.

WAS. Only one post office existed there. In addition there were three small houses. And an elementary school.

There WERE so many things!

Subject/verb agreement.
No wiggle room.

Also different regions have different idiosyncrasies with language. Sometimes stuff like “ain’t no” shouldn’t theoretically have the meaning it does, but works and is understood in a certain way anyway.

Plus, English is a bastard language and kinda weird.

On the same note, I’ve always wondered about this:

“There was 6 inches of rain/snow last night.”

Coming from California, I’ve always heard it this way, even by professional announcers. “There were 6 inches of rain” sounds strange and wrong to me. Is it just me?

I thought perhaps the verb agreement is this case is with the uncountable noun rain or snow; however, it’s incorrect to say, “There was 6 bottles of tea on the table.”

What say you?


i vote for “was”

I guess the several inches of snow is counted as one thing

If you add a “furthermore” it will impress students further and more.

ie. There was one post office. In addition, there were three small houses, and furthermore, an elementary school.

English students just love to suck this stuff up.

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Beside the house there were post offices, three small houses and an elementary school - This is the only way I find “were” to be the correct answer.