The English language is riddled with rules and exceptions to those rules, but the use of “there was” and “there were” is relatively straightforward and consistent. As long as you have grasped the basics for the verb “to be,” and you understand plurals, you’ll be able to use these phrases correctly.
Both there were and there was are used in the past tense and follow the same rules that there is and there are follow in the present tense. Each are mostly used to introduce a description – there was describes a singular object in the past tense, and there were describes plural objects in the past tense.
In this article, we’re going to explore the various uses of “there was” and “there were” when used in positive and negative statements, as well as when used as a question or in answering a question. We’ll also look at alternatives to using this construction.
“There Was” vs. “There Were”
When deciding whether to use “was” or “were,” you need to know whether the thing you are describing is singular or plural. Here are a couple of examples for each of these phrases so you can get a sense of the difference:
|There was||There was a worm in my salad.||Singular|
|There were||There were three worms in my salad.||Plural|
|There was||There was a hamburger on this plate.||Singular|
|There were||There were two hamburgers on this plate.||Plural|
Let’s quickly recap what a plural is so that we know when to use “were” instead of “was.”
Simply put, a plural noun is a word that refers to more than one thing — person, place, animal, idea, etc. As soon as you speak about more than one of anything, then it is plural. There are many rules around using plurals, but, for our purposes, we’re just going to look at noun plurals.
Most plurals are simply the singular noun with an “s” added. “Dog” becomes “dogs,” “leg” becomes “legs,” and so on.
However, English has many exceptions. Some plurals have “es” added afterward, and others have irregular plural forms, which you just have to learn. Some examples of the most common irregular plurals follow below:
If describing a singular object, you would use “there was,” and if describing plural objects, you would use “there were.” It’s essential to know whether the object is singular or plural because the verb and subject must agree.
For example, you will say, “There was one person at the party” because you are referring to a singular person. You will say, “There were three people at the party” when referring to more than one person.
The Verb “To Be”
This is a very common verb, and sometimes one of the most confusing too! It’s most commonly used to link one verb to another, such as “He was playing soccer,” but sometimes stands on its own, as is the case when it’s used in the “there was” or “there were” construction.
If you would say “there is” or “there are” in the present tense, then you would use “there was” and “there were” in the past tense. Below are some examples of sentences in both the present and the past tense:
|Present||There is a stone in my shoe.|
|Past||There was a stone in my shoe.|
|Present||There are twenty children in the classroom.|
|Past||There were twenty children in the classroom.|
A positive statement in English gives you a piece of information describing how something is. By definition, it is an objective and fact-based statement. Positive or affirmative statements using “there was” or “there were” follow the formula below:
- There + verb + complement — the rest of the sentence that completes the idea.
For example, here are two positive statements:
|There||was||a dog in my garden.|
|There||were||three dogs in my garden.|
Negative statements are the opposite of positive statements. They’re still objective and fact-based, but they tell you something is not so. They either contain a negative word — not, no, no one, nobody, never, none — or a negative verb.
Negative statements using “there was” or “there were” follow the same formula as positive statements, but the verb needs to be conjugated in the negative (source):
- There + negative verb + complement
For example, here are two negative statements:
|There||was not||a dog in my garden.|
|There||were not||any dogs in my garden.|
Contractions, or joining together two words, are commonly used throughout the English language. Here, they’re used with negative verbs where the verb and “not” are joined together.
In this case, “was not” becomes “wasn’t” and “were not” becomes “weren’t.”
Using contractions, these sentences would look like this:
|There||wasn’t||a dog in my garden.|
|There||weren’t||any dogs in my garden.|
Contractions are common in everyday speech and informal writing (source). In fact, it would be strange to hear someone speaking without using contractions.
However, some academic papers and formal documents don’t use contractions, so it’s often best to check if they are acceptable in formal environments.
To formulate questions using “there was” and “there were,” you can follow the following formula:
- Verb + there + complement?
For example, here are the previous sentences made into questions:
|Was||there||a dog in your garden?||Singular|
|Were||there||any dogs in your garden?||Plural|
|Was||there||a worm in my salad?||Singular|
|Were||there||three worms in my salad?||Plural|
|Was||there||a hamburger on this plate?||Singular|
|Were||there||two hamburgers on this plate?||Plural|
“There was” and “there were” are often used to answer questions that begin with “how much?” or “how many?” Below are some examples of questions with answers that highlight this.
- Question: How many dogs were in the park?
- Answer: There were ten dogs in the park — plural.
- Answer: There was one dog in the park — singular.
- Question: How much milk was in the refrigerator?
- Answer: There was a pint of milk in the refrigerator — singular.
- Answer: There were five bottles of milk in the refrigerator — plural.
The phrase is also used to answer questions, either positively or negatively, that begin with “was there” or “were there,” as in the examples below.
- Question: Was there any pizza at the party?
- Answer: Yes, there was pizza at the party.
- Answer: No, there wasn’t pizza at the party.
- Question: Were there any children in the classroom?
- Answer: Yes, there were five children in the classroom.
- Answer: No, there weren’t any children in the classroom.
Question tags are often added onto a statement, turning it into a question. If it is a positive statement, then a negative question tag is added, and if it is a negative statement, then a positive tag is added (source). Examples of both follow below.
- There were ten dogs in the park, weren’t there?
- There weren’t any dogs in the park, were there?
- There was food at the party, wasn’t there?
- There wasn’t any food at the party, was there?
This is most often used in spoken English, and much less in written English. And usually, question tags are added when the speaker expects you to agree with their statement.
Any sentence that begins with “There is/was/are/were” or “It is/was” is an expletive construction. When using this kind of construction, “it” or “there” is used instead of the subject of the sentence.
Although it is a handy and much-used construction, many word experts warn against overusing it as it can make writing seem very bland and overly wordy. It’s usually best used when it immediately follows a sentence that clearly defines the subject (source).
Below are some sentences that are written with and without expletive constructions. They clearly show how meaning can be more direct if this construction is avoided.
|Version 1||There was a worm in my salad that nibbled my lettuce.|
|Version 2||A worm nibbled the lettuce in my salad.|
|Version 1||There were ten rules that had to be followed.|
|Version 2||Ten rules had to be followed.|
If in doubt during your study of the often-confusing English language, it’s always best to refer to reliable resources. The following two books are very helpful, and both are available on Amazon:
- The Oxford New Essential Dictionary
- Dreyer’s English Clarity and Style Guide
The dictionary is easy to use and has clear definitions and helpful examples. Dreyer’s English is a style guide that will answer any questions you may have on the English language’s nuances.
The difference between “there was” and “there were” is entirely dependent on whether the subject you are speaking about is singular or plural.
The same rules apply to both phrases, and they can be used in various constructions to make positive or negative statements as well as to ask or answer questions.
In English, as in most languages, the subject and verb must agree, and it is, therefore, most important to know if you are referring to something in singular or plural before deciding to use “there was” or “there were.”