The Number Is; A Number Are
by Tina Blue
July 28, 2003
One reader has asked a question that many of you would probably like to have an answer to. Detergent comes in amounts. People come in numbers. Don't talk about a large amount of people, or books, or pencils, or anything else that can be counted. If something is measured rather than counted, then it comes in amounts. There is a large amount of snow on the ground, but there are a large number of trees in the forest. Then he asks,
Shouldn't that last sentence read, "There is a large number of trees in
the forest."? If you boil the sentence down to its core, you have
"There is a number". 'Number' is singular, and "... of trees in the
forest" is merely a modifier. As I understand it, the plurality of the
word 'trees' should not affect the verb form used in this sentence,
since it is buried in a prepositional phrase.
Well, in most cases, he would be right. The prepositional phrase following the subject is normally not relevant to the number of the subject when it comes to determining whether one needs a singular or a plural verb. But "number" is a special type of noun, of a sort called nouns of multitude, one type of which is the collective noun. The rule for collective nouns is this: Use a singular verb when the group is considered as a unit acting together. Use a plural verb when the individual members of the group are acting separately.
~Our family goes on vacation together every August. ~The family have been unable to agree on a vacation site this year. ~The committee insists on having its proposal presented to the mayor. ~The committee are still arguing over whom to send as their representative to the mayor. When the actual word "number" is involved, there is a general rule that makes it easy to decide on a verb. According to H. W. Fowler, * When the word number itself is itself the subject it is a safe rule to treat it as singular when it has a definite article and as plural when it has an indefinite. The number of people present was large, but A large number of people were present. In Before the conclave begins in a fortnight's time a number of details has to be settled the singular is clearly wrong; it is the details that have to be settled, not the number; a number of details is a composite subject equivalent to numerous details. But the same reader who posed the question in the first place also poses this question:
One alternative I've considered: is this another American/British usage
issue, similar to that involving sports teams and other collective
nouns, as in "Liverpool are short a man today" (British) vs. "Detroit is
short a man today" (American)? Would it be correct to write "A number
of trees are..." in Jolly Olde England but not in America?
As it happens, that is not the case where this issue is concerned. In the U.S., too, the general rule holds. This is from The Prentice-Hall Handbook for Writers, one of the many American rhetoric and grammar and usage handbooks I keep around the house,
The expression the number takes a singular verb, but a number takes a plural verb. ~The number of candidates for the position was large. ~A number of candidates were applying for the position. ~The number of people moving to the Southwest is increasing. ~A number of business firms have moved from New. York.
*H.W. Fowler, the "grammarian's grammarian, published A Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926. (It is kept up to date with periodic revisions. All page references in this article are to A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965].)