4. Concord and Non-concord between the Subject and the Predicate

In the simple present, the verb has the same form with both a singular and a plural subject, since the suffix -s/-es is generally not expressed in the third-person singular. For a more detailed discussion, see For a discussion of the negative form of the verb do, see 5.3. The following sections, 4.1-4.2, deal with the affirmative forms of the verb be. The negative forms of the verb be are discussed in sections 5.1 and 5.2.

4.1 The Verb Be with Singular and Plural Subjects in Affirmative Sentences

The simple present of the verb be generally has the same affirmative forms as in present-day StE. Thus, the forms are: I’m/am, you’re/are, he/she/it/a singular noun + ’s/is, we’re/are, and they/a plural noun + ’re/are. The singular form is occasionally used in cases where one would expect the plural form, as in We went on Windfowl Farm, this here what’s up here now, where the soldiers is now one night, me and this fellow (Waterbeach BB) (cf. the usage in existential there sentences in 4.2).

The simple past has two forms: was and were, corresponding to those in StE. These forms are used (1) as a main verb, as in examples 4.1 (a-b), and (2) as an auxiliary, as in examples 4.1 (c-d):

4.1 (a) That old lady, she were = what = *’s mother (Willingham ET)
  (b) They was twenty yards apart. They was. (Waterbeach BB)
  (c) I were fighting you (Harston AS)
  (d) These engines when they was a-ploughing, they used to plough both ways. (Bartlow CP)

As we can see, the form were can be used with singular subjects and vice versa. For more examples of was and were in the past progressive, see 3.1.4. The following discussion focuses on the forms of was and were as main verbs.

The verb is regularised by having either the form were across number and person or the form was across number and person. By regularised I mean that there is a strong tendency to use either the form were or the form was. In each informant’s speech there is variation between were and was.

Examples 4.2 (a-b) are deliberately chosen to illustrate the first- and third-person singular with the form were:

4.2 (a) I were with them (Swaffham Prior EW)
  (b) He were my father’s uncle (Willingham SS)

The form were (in all persons) occurs especially in the north-west of Cambridgeshire proper. The paradigm with were must have been typical of Cambridgeshire speech, as the use of this form was especially pointed out by locals and by Enid Porter, an expert on Cambridgeshire speech and a writer of many works on folk life in Cambridgeshire, in an interview with the present writer. [1] This use of were may be due to historical factors. Ellis (1889) demonstrated that in parts of the East Midlands the predominant form was were in the 19th century. Ellis did not comment on Cambridgeshire. However, he (1889: 207) reported instances from Bedford, a county bordering Cambridgeshire, such as It were so queer and The kettle were a-boiling. Further evidence comes from Wright (EDD 1898-1905. be. v. II.1), who states that the south-east Cambridgeshire past-tense form of be is were, although he only gives information about the first-person singular I were. [2]

The regularisation of was for all persons is also attested, especially with speakers from the south-east and east of Cambridgeshire. Examples 4.3 (a-c) are chosen to illustrate the use of was with the first-person plural pronoun, with noun subjects, and with the pronoun you.

4.3 (a) We was more happier (th)an they are today (Bartlow CP)
  (b) Sometimes you was on your bike and sometimes you got to have it on your shoulder and walk (Swaffham Prior EW)
  (c) And the pedals was on the middle (Waterbeach BB)

In eastern Cambridgeshire, the relatively frequent occurrence of was may be due to contact with Suffolk, where the older r-variant (were, wer, war) was gradually replaced by the new was variant around 1800 (e.g. Forby [1830] 1970: 141). About a hundred years later, this replacement was also noted by Claxton (1968:12): “wuz usually takes the place of were”. [3]

Thus far, this investigation has concentrated on the forms was and were. In addition, speakers use forms other than these two, for instance, the form war. The form war ([wɒ:(r)], [wɔː(r)]) is attested with both singular and plural subjects. War occurs especially in final position, often confirming what was just said, and for emphasis. The use of war is illustrated by examples 4.4 (a-c):

4.4 (a) They were special breed. Smith’s cows war. (Willingham ES)
  (b) Do you know what the weights war? (i.e. what they actually were) (Willingham SS)
  (c) [I] went out the back of this house and looking out that (i.e. a bomb) war just cross the field (i.e. to his great surprise, the bomb had dropped so near) (Waterbeach BB)

War occurs particularly (though not exclusively) in the north-west of Cambridgeshire proper. The use of war in Cambridgeshire dialect speech in the 1970s (when the interviews for the present study were recorded) might be a continuation of the use of this form from earlier periods. In the early 19th century, the form war was noted in Suffolk and Norfolk by Forby ([1830] 1970:141), who wrote “Our constant use of war for was, is merely using the plural form for singular also. War appears to have been the Danish form of were or wer; and has therefore been a very long time in our interrupted possession.” Forby’s interpretation of war as the plural form used for singular might also suggest that the form war is a variant of the plural forms. In Cambridgeshire dialect speech in the 1970s, the form war occurred in the speech of informants whose dominant form was were with both singular and plural subjects. However, it also occurred in the speech of those whose dominant form was was with both singular and plural subjects.

There may also be variants other than was, were and war. [4] Further research and more material from Cambridgeshire speech is needed to investigate this possibility.

4.2 The Verb Be in Existential There-Sentences

This discussion of existential there-sentences focuses on the use of two of the three forms of the verb be: was and were, with singular and plural subjects; war is excluded due to its infrequency (4.1).

In the standard written language, the construction there is/’s is followed by a singular noun or pronoun. These constructions are rare in the interviews for the present study, although there are instances such as and there is one thing about it (Bassingbourn BR) and That’s always been at Warwick = (th)at don’t come = there’s still one place every year [where they have a horse show] (Bartlow CP).

As in colloquial speech in general, there’s/is is usually followed by a plural noun or plural pronoun, as in:

4.5 (a) There’s so many fresh faces = pull up in a car where so and so lived (Rampton TR)
  (b) There’s four- about five on us alive now (Castle Camps JH)

In contrast to the numerous instances of there’s/is + pl. noun/pronoun, the plural noun/pronoun is rarely preceded by there’re/are. These are usually cases where the speaker is trying to speak more formally, as in the example:

4.6     That’d been very interesting for you, ’cause there are all shows there. (Bartlow CP)

The use of the simple past forms of the verb be in existential there-sentences follows, to a great extent, the same rules as the use of the simple present forms. The construction there was is usually followed by a plural noun, as illustrated by the examples:

4.7 (a) Waterpumps = there was fif- = fifteen in = er = fifteen in this village (Waterbeach BB)
  (b) There was plenty young ones about (West Wickham CC)

The construction there was with singular noun is also attested, as shown by example 4.8. This construction is used by speakers who also use there was with plural subjects.

4.8     There was an old fellow- poor old fellow = he hadn’t got only two old horse (Burwell GW)

Since the simple past form was is also shortened to ’s, it is sometimes problematic to decide whether the ’s is short for is or was, although the context usually dispels ambiguity, as in Well, I- I lived there twenty-five year. There’s nine bedrooms and a bathroom. (Burwell GW)

There were is followed by a singular subject, as illustrated by the example:

4.9     There were a bloody flatten basket hung up in a shed (Willingham AA)

The construction there were + pl. subject is used by speakers who also use there were with a singular subject. The usage with plural subjects is illustrated by the example:

4.10     There were = three on us in two year and five months (Willingham ES)

More than one variant form is attested for the simple past of the verb be preceded by a singular or plural subject. This is also the case with existential there constructions. There are clearly instances where speakers pronounce [wɑ]. This form, represented with the spelling wa in this study, occurs in cases such as There wa four on us (Burwell GW). The form, which is probably different from war (4.1), is attested both in the speech of those who tend to use was with both singular and plural subjects and of those who tend to use were with both singular and plural subjects. More Cambridgeshire material is needed for a more detailed study of variants other than was and were. [5]

For the negative forms of the simple past of the verb be, see 5.2.

The non-expression of there occurs with the negative form of the verb be, as in Wont half the fires there is today and No, ain’t no streetlights. Ain’t no streetlights about here (West Wickham CC). [6]


[1] Enid Porter was curator of the Cambridge and Country Folk Museum in Cambridge from 1947 to 1976. Her book, Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore, remains the standard work on the subject.

[2] Viereck’s (1985a: 259-260) study, which is based on Wright’s EDD, Lowman’s material (collected in the early 1930s) and the Survey of English Dialects (SED), further shows that were was concentrated in an area comprising the counties of Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, northern Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Rutland as well as Cambridgeshire.

[3] The relatively frequent occurrence of was in the south-east of Cambridgeshire during the 1970s (when the present data were gathered) was most likely a result of the spread of this variant from southeast England (e.g. Trudgill 2008: 351).

[4] See Ahava 2010. For a more detailed discussion of the affirmative forms of the verb be, see Vasko (forthcoming).

[5] For a more detailed discussion of existential there sentences with the simple past of the verb be (there was, there were, etc.), see Vasko (forthcoming).

Peitsara (1988) discusses existential there sentences in the dialect of Suffolk. Her evidence is drawn mainly from the Suffolk sub-corpus of the Helsinki Corpus of British English Dialects.

[6] Ihalainen (1990a: 89-90) studied omissions of existential there in three samples (Somerset, Cambridgeshire and Yorkshire). Ihalainen came to the conclusion that there-ellipsis was common in Somerset and Cambridgeshire speech, whereas there were no instances of there-ellipsis in his Yorkshire sample. Ihalainen also noted that there-ellipsis was contextually conditioned. No examples were found in subordinate clauses in his Cambridgeshire sample. For a more detailed discussion of there-ellipis and the three samples, see Ihalainen (1990a).