I know Russian is quite a "strong" language in terms of word order, which I actually like. However, I recently learned that the verb быть changes in past-tense sentence inversions.

For example:


Sentence  : До завтрака хлеб и сыр были на столе.    
Inversion : До завтрака на столе был хлеб и сыр.


Sentence  : Многие дети были в парке.
Inversion : В парке было много детей.

How do we figure when to change были into был, была or было? What would we use in the first example if the words weren't the same gender, but rather mixed as in хлеб и вода? Could you please give more examples to make it clear?

Note that I'm just a learner. Feel free to correct me if I've made any mistakes even in my question.

Thanks in advance.


3 Answers 3


Sometimes the agreement of verb predicates with subjects is governed by rather complex rules.

  1. With two or more subjects and one predicate, the general rules are:

    (a) When the predicate follows the subjects, it is normally in the plural:

Книга и газета лежали на столе. До завтрака хлеб и сыр были на столе.

(b) When the predicate precedes the subjects, it is usually in the singular:

На столе лежит книга и газета. В деревне послышался топот и крики. (Л. Толстой) До завтрака на столе был сыр и хлеб. However, the plural can also be used, especially if one of the nouns is in the plural:

Из соседней комнаты слышались рыдание и крики. До завтрака на столе были хлеб и сыр.

(c) When the subjects are persons, the predicate is in the plural, regardless of its position in the sentence.

Вечером пришли Павел и Иван.

  1. When the compound subject includes много, немного, мало, сколько or столько, the predicate is in the singular:

Сколько учеников пришло на урок? Много людей пришло на собрание. В парке было много детей.


Многие люди ушли рано.Многие дети были в парке.

  1. When the compound subject includes большинство, меньшинство, or несколько, the predicate is either in the singular or (sometimes) in the plural

    Большинство учеников было отправлено в лагерь. Большинство этих писем пришло утром. Большинство учеников уехали в лагерь. За дверью находилось несколько человек.

Note: When большинство or меньшинство function as independent subjects, the predicate must be in the singular:

Меньшинство голосовало против.

  1. When the subject is expressed by a numeral and noun, the following rules govern the agreement:

    (a) With one, the predicate is, of course, in the singular:

    Прошла одна неделя.

    (b) With two, three, or four, the predicate is usually in the plural:

    Три мальчика пришли утром.

However, the singular predicate is used in impersonal constructions:

У него было два чемодана.В парке было много детей.

(с) With numerals from five up, a subtle distinction is made, depending on whether the subject is thought of as an entity, or as consisting of separate units.

In the first case, the predicate is in the singular:

Прошло пять минут.

In the second case, the predicate is in the plural:

Пять человек принесли подарки.

Five people brought presents. (independent actions by different persons)

Sometimes the choice is less obvious:

В классе сидело десять учеников. Десять учеников сидели в классе.

Sometimes the choice is a delicate matter, no longer confined to grammar

d) The predicate is in the singular when the subject expresses approximation:

Получено около сорока книг.

About forty books were received.

Там работало человек тридцать.

About thirty people worked there.

(e) The predicate is in the singular when the subject expresses limitation:

Только шесть домов было построено.

Only six houses were built.

Пришло всего десять студентов.

Only ten students came.

(f) When two nouns are joined by the preposition c, the predicate may be either in the singular or in the plural.

Муж с женой пошли на концерт.

Отец с детьми гулял в парке.

  • Such a great answer. Thank you for your attention! There is only one last thing I would like to ask. было or neutr gender is used in many of examples. Are there any cases that была is also used? Could we use it in such a sentence: "на столе была газета и вода" where both words are feminine: ?
    – user8492
    Feb 18, 2017 at 12:16
  • 1
    Yes, it's OK.Хлеба на столах были навалены горы, перед каждым приглашенным стояла миска и пустая кружка, но подавать кушанья не начинали. (from the ruscorpora.com. ) But don't forget you can use the verb in the plural as well, and that's what we use more often.
    – V.V.
    Feb 18, 2017 at 13:16
  • Good to know for me. благодарю!
    – user8492
    Feb 18, 2017 at 13:24
  • Do you have a source for this (excellent) explanation?
    – Matti P.
    Nov 10, 2020 at 5:46
  • Just a thought: Reading this answer, I think the highlighting (with bold) is a bit confusing. I would change that to indicate the words that are relevant to the discussed rule. For example, in the sentence "Многие дети были в парке.", the important word is Многие, right?
    – Matti P.
    Nov 10, 2020 at 9:02

I can't comment, so: you actually missed something. Both examples are incorrect.

  • Sentence : До завтрака хлеб и сыр были на столе.

  • Inversion : До завтрака на столе были хлеб и сыр.

  • Sentence : Многие дети были в парке.

  • Inversion : В парке были многие дети. or В парке было много детей. But second one has another meaning.

In this sentences, the most important word comes first. The first sentence is more about the children, while the second is more about the park. Also, it sounds like the first one is about "a park", while the second is about "the park". It's hard to explain, and I may be wrong on this point.

  • I had seen first example about bread and cheese somewhere I don't remember, It might be wrong. But second one is here on page 4. Thank you for your answer.
    – user8492
    Feb 18, 2017 at 1:22
  • "v parke bylo mnogo detej". Многие - most. Много - many.
    – Dmytro
    Feb 18, 2017 at 1:32
  • 1
    It is a different cases of of word "дети". "Дети" - nominative, "детей" - genitive.
    – Dmytro
    Feb 18, 2017 at 1:39
  • 1
    @Dmytro многие does NOT mean "most" !!! It means "many" Feb 18, 2017 at 6:28
  • 1
    For example: "Many other have seen it." - «Это видели и многие другие.» OR "I, like many others, was charmed by Mary." - «Я, как и многие другие, был очарован Марией.» Feb 18, 2017 at 6:33

So we all know that быть is:

Я, ты, он: был

Я, ты, она: была

Оно: было

Они, мы, вы: были

Ok, so simple, yes? Like I would say:

Вчера я была в парке. Yesterday I was in the park. I’m a feminine subject so I use была, not был.

Now for a masculine subject. If my, I don’t know, dad went to the park, he says: Я был в парке. Of course, if he spoke Russian all the time and not Uzbek…

So what about for multiple subjects, like хлеб и молоко? What would you say for pronouns? Они, because you can say they instead of the bread and milk in English.

So it is…

Хлеб и молоко были на столе. But if we can do an inversion we get На столе был хлеб и молоко. Because стол is a masculine noun. It HAS to correspond with the gender of the noun.

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