Coat of Arms of the City of York
Coat of Arms of the City of York 


Historical aspect

Tagliamonte (1998) observes that, whilst it has been suggested by some academics that the was / were variation existed in Old English (the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons), there is insufficient evidence to support this notion. However, citing Mossé (1952), she comments on the "sheer number of alternative forms" (see table below) appearing in Middle English (the language of Chaucer). Furthermore, Tagliamonte draws attention to the fact that, based on existing literature, the interchangeability of was and were is not perceived to be "erratic or random" but that it seemingly conformed to an "identifiable and consistent pattern" (for further details see Tagliamonte, 1998: 156-7).

Modern Standard English
Middle English
West Midland
East Midland
I was
was, wes
you were
was, wes
were, wast
he, she, it was
was, wes
We, you, they were
wer, war, wes
weore, wære

After Mossé (1952: 84)

According to the historical literature, says Tagliamonte, was with the second persons singular and plural (i.e. you was) has been a characteristic of northern English since at least the Middle Ages. She further observes that York English "has evolved ….in the same geographic locale for centuries."


Contemporary York English forms

With regard to present-day York English, Tagliamonte notes that the alternation of was and were can occur "in the speech of the same individual, in the same sentence, and in all grammatical persons". The following are few of the examples she employs to illustrate this point:

(1) She were a good worker. She was a helluva good worker.

(2) There was a lot of us that were sort of seventeen.

(3) You were mentioning windscreen wipers…….

(4) You was only away a bit.

Moreover, the predominant pattern in York is the use of was in contexts of were. An unusual feature of York English is that, contrary to the general pattern existing in the northern regions of England, the non-standard construction we was is used.


Research Findings

Concerning her research findings, Tagliamonte (1998d) makes the following observations with regard to, inter alia: polarity, non-existential sentence structures, negative tags, and variance in relation to types of Noun Phrase (henceforth NP).


Apart from in plural existential contexts, in York English, nonstandard was never occurs in negative contexts of standard were. Tagliamonte claims that nonstandard wasn't in non-existential contexts is therefore impossible. She suggests therefore that, in York English, the following types of structure don't occur:

(5) *We wasn't living there then.

(6) *You wasn't a long way away though.

Negative Tags

Referring to the findings of the Survey of English Dialects, Tagliamonte draws attention to the use of nonstandard were in negative tags in the first person singular (i.e. weren't I), a form which is prevalent in Yorkshire and is also recorded for the city of York. She provides the following example:

(7) I was getting a bit fed up with hairdressing then really, weren't I?

Variance in relation to NP types

Although Tagliamonte examines NP types in considerable detail this section briefly considers only three categories: collective nouns; conjoined noun phrase structures; and indefinite pronouns.

Collective nouns

Tagliamonte refers to the claim that the perception of a noun as singular or plural has controlled the form of the verb since the Old English period. In the 18th century it was maintained that, with regard to singular collective nouns such as people, the correct form was was. She cites for example:

(8) And much of the people of the city was with her. (Auth. V. Bible, Luke VII, 12.)

Compare the following construction found within her data on York English:

(9) Even in Parliament Street there was people lived in flats.

However, Tagliamonte notes that, in present-day usage, nonstandard was with a collective noun is affected by the noun's position in relation to the verb, and claims that people never occurs with was when it occupies the position of subject. For example:

(10) I met people that were absolutely amazing.

Conjoined NP structures

Tagliamonte observes that the "older varieties" of English were substantially more liberal in their use of nonstandard was. She contrasts this with Standard English grammar, which stipulates that, where two or more singular nouns are joined by the conjunction and, the accompanying verb should be plural, e.g.:

(11) The boys and girls were playing together.

With regard to York English, Tagliamonte found that, in non-existential constructions, conjoined NPs conformed to the prescribed standard form were (12) but, in existential constructions, was occurred more frequently (13):

(12) I heard that Brian and her were going to go.

(13) And there was a telephone and desk.

Indefinite pronouns

Tagliamonte notes that the use of were with indefinite pronouns (such as every, each, everybody etc.) has, since the 18th century, attracted the disapproval of English grammarians. However, citing Visser (1970:78), she provides the following examples of earlier usage:

(14) Every of Whose Words and Actions were infinitely to be admir'd. (1665 J. Sergeant, Sure-footing in Christianity, 224)

(15) Everyone were pleased. (1903 Samuel Butler, Way All FI., 173)

Compare the above with examples of contemporary York English:

(16) Everything were going great.

(17) Everything were about ten and fifteen years younger.

However, Tagliamonte does point out in relation to these last examples that, of the 44 indefinite pronouns appearing in her data, only 5% are linked to were.



Mossé, F. (1952) A handbook of Middle English, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Tagliamonte, S. (1998) Was / were variation across the generations: View from the city of York. Language Variation and Change, 10(2): 153-191, Cambridge University Press (Printed in USA).

Visser, F.T. (1970) An historical syntax of the English language, Leiden: E. J. Brill.