the phrase "a large number" takes is or are?


Please see the following sentence and advise me whether it is right or wrong?

See example:

An inference may be drawn from this estimation that a very large number of companies are involved in the military business, which indicates the breadth and depth of the business.
asked Jan 22 '13 at 11:08 Saddam Hossain New member

2 answers


Tolley, I hate to correct you again,  BUT:


With the indefinite article a, a number of +[plural noun] is always, always followed by a verb that agrees with that plural noun, which is its subject.  The phrase in Saddam's sentence is 100% correct: ...a very large number of companies are involved in....  A number of is a quantifier phrase, just like lots of or a lot of, or several.  In contrast, the definite phrase the number of always takes a singular verb:  The number of students in the class has decreased. Or, The number of applicants is steadily increasing.  But, always, A number of students have complained about the new Physics professor or There have been a large number of complaints about the postal service recently.


The error you have made, the grammar point you've missed, relates to the fact that--just like a lot of, a great deal of, or a couple of--a number of is not a true partitive. (As I learned quite recently, a noun is partitive if the parts can be divided from the whole.) Dozen is a true partitive.  We can say a dozen, two dozen, three dozen, dozens of, etc.  Piece is another true partitive. We can say a piece of cake, two pieces of cake, several pieces of cake, but we cannot grammatically say two lots of, two great deals of, three couples of, nor can we say three numbers of.  By virtue of not being partitive, these expressions are quantifiers.  Quantifiers function completely differently, grammatically-speaking, from true partitives, including the fact that the main verb MUST agree with the subject, not its quantifier.   A lot of effort goes into these answers vs. A lot of students have admitted to smoking marijuana. Both of these sentences are grammatically correct because a lot of is a quantifier in each sentence.   True partitives, like piece, on the other hand, always yield to/agree with their quantity: There is a piece of pizza on the table.  There are two pieces of pizza on the table. I want a piece of cake.  I ordered three pieces of cake.  Two pieces of pie are left on the plate.  


It is the same rule for the quantifier expression a number of, except that this phrase is ALWAYS followed by a plural noun (because, with the indefinite article a, number is always plural as a quantifier), not an uncountable noun (a number of wood, or a number of bread, for example, would be incorrect) and thus the verb must agree with the plural subject that precedes it. 


Scout's Honor, if you can provide some authoritative sources that rebut what I'm putting out here, or if there is any verifiable difference between Canadian/British English and American English, and if I concede, I will eat my hat and buy you lunch (choose the gift certifcate which is purchasable online of your choice!  Given my modest circumstances and lack of credit, it might have to accept Paypal...LOL).  I have searched, both through my published references, and online, and I haven't come up with anything that points to the slightest controversy on this (admittedly, somewhat difficult) grammar point.


My published sources are the usual suspects: Michael Swan's Practical English Usage, 2nd ed., p. 520;  Marianne Celce-Murcia & Diane Larsen-Freeman's The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher's Course, 2nd ed., pp. 332-3;  Geoffrey Leech & Jan Svartvik's A Communicative Grammar of English, 2nd ed., pp. 71, 73, 511 & 527.   Backed up by umpteen online sources:,,,,  Ad infinitum.



PS:  Having read, respected, learned from, and up-voted an uncountable number of your competent, often outright brilliant, answers, I value your expertise.  Given my druthers, I would much prefer it if you would give me your email address (mine is shawnmooneyinjapan[at], with which you can also add me on Facebook) so that, in the future, I can give you a heads-up privately were something like this to happen again, enabling you to revise your answer without me or others publicly correcting you. (I would expect reciprocity, of course - no one, least of all me, is perfect - you have enlightened me a time or two, also!  You will no doubt have already discovered a grammatical error, or two, or more in this answer.). As far as I am concerned, our recent tit-for-tat of down-voting and sniping is at an end. But I do want correct answers to be provided on  I really hope you and I, and the other regular answer-ers, can work together to collaboratively respond to future questions as competently as we can.  Two, three, or four heads are better than one!

link edited Jan 22 '13 at 19:38 Shawn Mooney Expert

You don't need to justify yourself to me. You do good research, and you have solid reasoning. I have editors and grad students who take pleasure in correcting my work, and I have quite a thick skin. It's part of being a writer and an educator. By the way, I don't snipe and I never down voted you. I appreciate your comments.

TolleyJan 23 '13 at 02:13

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Here's a simple way to remember this grammar point: "a number of" always takes a plural verb; "the number of" always takes a singular verb. No exceptions.

link comment answered Jan 26 '13 at 18:39 Sandy Contributor

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