singular/plural?

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A big thank you for your the best help but unfortunatly I am too confused about this sentence that is writen in the dictionary of cambridge or somewhere..

sentence:A large number of invitations HAS been sent.

but on the other hand I have seen this:A small number of children ARE educated at home.

Of course I really know that after (a large number of...) normally we must use a plural verb but in that sentence in the cambridge dictionary It is used HAS !!!!!why they do not used HAVE??????

asked Feb 17 '13 at 19:18 Mohamad Meamar New member

6 answers


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This issue -- whether number of is singular or plural -- is the subject of debate. I turned to Garner's Modern American Usage (3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2009) for help.

 

Garner's, which devotes a full page to the topic (at page 578), begins by saying "pendants" insist on applying the general rule whereby number is singular and so the verb must also be singular -- has. Garner's goes on to tell us that number of -- like several other formulations -- is an exception to the general rule. It follows the principle known as synesis, which allows some constructions to control properties such as number according to their meaning rather than strict syntactical rules. Thus, a number of invitations have ...

 

Garner's reminds us that when the phrase is used with the definitive article -- the number of children -- everything changes. Now instead of talking about multiple things, we are talking about the number itself, which is singular. The number of children in school has not changed in five years.

 

I hope this helps.

link comment answered Feb 17 '13 at 19:40 Jeff Pribyl Grammarly Fellow
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Mohamad,

 

Let me both add to and rephrase what Jeff has said. 

 

I found the specific Cambridge definition, with the confusing example sentences, here:

http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/number_2

 

Like you, I was confused by the example sentence A large number of invitations has been sent, as it goes against all the grammar rules I had researched.  I do note that the Cambridge dictionary terms that example as "slightly formal", so perhaps that is part of the reason.

 

However, I think you will be safe to use  a number (whether or not it is followed by of + noun) with a plural verb and the number of  + noun with a singular verb. 

 

Jeff referred to a distinction between a number + verb and a number of + noun, and I think that distinction can safely be ignored.  I have just done a Google Books corpora search (of millions of published books 1810-present) and found 1,100 instances of a number has compared to 7,000 instances of a number have; so, yes, that distinction is not very widely-made, and you can take the simpler path and use a plural verb after a number + verb as well, safe in the knowledge that most published writers do, too.

 

So, there are two exceptions to what I am about to explain: the example sentence A large number of invitations has been sent from the Cambridge dictionary, characterized as "slightly formal", and the distinction Jeff pointed to from Garner's Modern American Usage, which I think I have dealt with.

 

Let's put those two aside and look at the way most grammar references characterize it, and the way most people speak and write: 

 

Here is some more information on a number/a number of which explains why the verbs should agree with a plural subject (revised from one of my earlier answers to a similar question on Grammarly):

 

With the indefinite article a, a number of +[plural noun] should be followed by a verb that agrees with that plural noun, which is its subject.  A number of, and a number are quantifier phrases (quantifiers are explained in more detail, below), 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, A number have complained about the new Physics professor or There have been a large number of complaints about the postal service recently.

 

The grammar rule is that--just like a lot of, a great deal of, or a couple of--a number of and a number are not true partitives. (A noun or expression is a 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 or three numbers.  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 tableThere 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 expressions a number of and a number, except that a number of is followed by a plural noun, and a number agrees with its implied plural noun. As well, these quantifier expressions cannot be followed by an uncountable noun (a number of wood, or a number of bread, for example, would be incorrect).  The verb must agree with the plural subject that, for a number of, precedes it, and for a number, is implied.

  

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:  http://linguapress.com/grammar/quantifiers.htm, http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/plurals.htm, http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/59753/a-number-of-students-vs-the-number-of-students,  http://www.economist.com/style-guide/singular-or-plural, http://faculty.washington.edu/marynell/grammar/agreement.html.  Ad infinitum.

link edited Feb 18 '13 at 05:11 Shawn Mooney Expert

Thank you for expanding upon my answer, but but let me clarify one thig. I was not tryig to make a distinction between number + verb and number of + noun. I was just trying to point out, as you do, that under the usual rule, the verb takes its number from the quantifier and not the noun that follows the quantifier + of. Perhaps my wording was not artful. Garner's and Swan's both share a common root -- Fowler's. Garner's addresses specifically American usage while Swan's tilts toward British English. Garner's als retains much of Fowler's format, while I find Swan's more difficult to navigate. Where British and American usage align, I find the two sources to be in agreement. The differences come where American usage differs from the British, and Garner's usally acknowledges the difference.

Jeff PribylFeb 18 '13 at 05:12

Jeff, I think you and I both agree that, in fact, contrary to what you just wrote, the usual rule isthat the verb takes its number from the noun that follows a quantifier, and not from the quantifieritself. "Some people liked it" vs. "Some music is relaxing"? "Some of the people were nice" vs. "Some of the music was good."?

Shawn MooneyFeb 18 '13 at 05:45

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Responding here to Shawn's comment as the comment field is too limiting.

 

Shawn, I think we agree, but we also may be talking about two different rules. The first general rule -- at least in American English -- is that in this construction -- quantifier + noun ... verb -- the verb agrees with the noun and not the quantifier. In this, we both seem to be saying the same thing.

 

The second rule involves this construction -- quantifier/determiner + of + noun ... verb -- the verb follows the number of the quantifier/determiner. So any of is singular while both of is generally plural. 

 

The exception to this second general rule is called synesis, and there are many exceptions that follow synesis rather than the general rules. Shawn's example partially illustrates the concept of synesis in that some (and some of) can be either singular or plural and always takes on the number of the noun that follows. A true example of synesis is the number of invitations question that started this thread.

 

Unfortunately, I do not know of any rule that tells you when the exception applies. It seems to be one of those things that you can only learn through experience.

link comment answered Feb 18 '13 at 21:16 Jeff Pribyl Grammarly Fellow
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Jeff,

 

This is really interesting; thanks for the extended response.

 

It's a complicated issue, to be sure. But I think the "second general rule" you have introduced is not, in fact, a rule at all. First of all, "any of" can be followed by either a plural countable noun ("I don't think any of his children were there") or an uncountable noun ("I don't know if any of the bread was eaten"). If you agree with me on that point, and it may well be a complicated and contested point, then secondly, "any of" and "both of" fall under the same general rule I've argued applies to all quantifiers: the verb agrees with the noun, NOT the quantifier.

 

I may have missed or misunderstood something, but that's my preliminary response. Also I'm typing this on my iPhone so I can't review my post before actually posting it - please forgive any typos and irregular formatting.

 

Shawn

link edited Feb 19 '13 at 12:52 Shawn Mooney Expert

I too am rushing about today. I'll find some references to the second rule -- or admit that I am befuddled -- later, much later, tonight.

Jeff PribylFeb 19 '13 at 20:51

Shawn, I think I've better expressed myself with a new answer.

Jeff PribylFeb 20 '13 at 04:52

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This is in response to Shawn's second answer.  I realize now that I have not properly expressed what we've been caling the second rule. I've also not expressed my thoughts wel or correctly.

 

The second rule is, in fact, the basic rule of subject-verb number agreement. That is, in most cases, the verb number is determined by the number of the subject. So ...

 

One needs to work hard.  In this sentence, one is the subject and is singular. Often, however, a prepositional phrase is introduced between the subject and the verb. And sometimes, the object of the prepositional phase is plural. One of the boys needs to attend summer school. Does the plural object change the number of the verb? The general rule says no.

 

In the original sentence -- A large number of invitations have been sent -- "number" is the subject. My Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary tells me that number is a singular collective noun. Following the normal rule, the verb should also be singular -- has. But the phrase "number of" is a special form. And this -- synesis -- is what I was trying (inelegantly) to express. Under the concept of synesis, some phrases call for the verb to agree with the object of the prepositional phrase and not the subject that preceeds the phrase.

 

I hope I have made better sense here.

link comment answered Feb 20 '13 at 04:56 Jeff Pribyl Grammarly Fellow
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Jeff, you have expressed yourself well, but we seem to be talking past each other.  My tentative opinion is that all qualifiers fall under the rubric of the rather obscure term (it seems like Garner's American Usage is the sole reputable grammar reference that uses it, at least when talking about the grammar of quantifiers) synesis.  In your most recent post, you have not specifically addressed the grammar of quantifiers in any of this, which I have continually tried to focus on in my responses, and I continue to (tentatively) hold fast to my opinion, as expressed in my last post, that the verb agrees with the noun, NOT the quantifier.
 

 Here is my suggestion:

 

(1) Us both being grammar geeks, and (2) so as not to further confuse Mohamad, and (3) should you be so inclined and have the time (Google suggests that you are a fairly busy man, and so am I), in order to perhaps arrive at a consensus on this complicated grammar point, why don't we take this offline, and perhaps post a joint statement here afterwards?  My email is shawnmooneyinjapan@gmail.com.  Just like with other tricky grammar topics, I am like a "dog with a bone" about this, and would welcome a spirited offline dialogue with you to hopefully sort it all out.  What do you think?  

 

Shawn

link comment edited Feb 20 '13 at 16:23 Shawn Mooney Expert

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