A number of

This is interesting timing because, as I said in my last post, I wanted to discuss the issue of what seems like a collective noun, "a number of," and whether it should be "is" or "are." And this week, someone was writing something at work, and he asked me if he should say "a number of is or are." After we had a brief conversation about it, I told him it should be "a number is," but now I realized I was wrong (but maybe it was right for the context? I don't remember what the sentence was; it made sense at the time).

I encounter "number of" many times in my work (usually "the number of") and saw "a number of" recently in something I had to copy edit. I hesitated when I saw that because it's very tempting to use "is" due to focusing on the first part of the sentence, which is "a number." But the Oxford Living Dictionary says it's supposed to be are: "A number of people are waiting for the bus." But that makes sense to me, too, because "people" is close to "are" and it sounds right.

But it's not enough for something to just "sound right" when writing or editing, because it's more formal than speaking, and we can usually break the rules in spoken English.

According to Editage, "Do not be misled by the indefinite article a in that expression: the expression is always used to indicate more than one of something and therefore takes a plural noun and a plural verb."

They also discuss "the number of," and now that I'm thinking of it, I see it way more often, which pretty much everyone says should be singular, such as "the number of plants in each pot was 25." In that case I've been right, and I'm glad my instincts were correct.

After much thought and online searching, I think I found the best explanation for this phrase at ESL Library: "a number of means many...it is serving the same role in the sentence as a quantifier such as 'many,' 'a lot of,' 'lots of,' 'hundreds of,' etc."

So from now on, I won't think twice about making "a number of" plural! I feel like I've read the equivalent of a booklet on that topic!


A variety of is or are?

I've been proofreading and copy editing and just analyzing English for years, but sometimes I get stuck on collective nouns. For instance, I recently saw "A variety of methods was used." That seems correct because the focus on the sentence is "a variety." Just in case, though, I did a search online, and the conflicting information is worrisome. Many articles and books have "was used," so it seems legitimate. But when I did a search for "were used," there are many articles using that as well. So what's the correct usage?

Well, if I were to use "variety" related to the articles and books I found, I would say "a variety of articles and books show" instead of "a variety of articles and books shows" because I want to emphasize the plurality of "articles and books" instead of "variety," which is singular. I guess that falls in to the "proximity agreement" concept, because I'm "relying on the noun that is closest to the verb to determine whether the verb is singular or plural."

I ended up keeping "A variety of methods was used" because I felt that the emphasis was on "variety." But if it said "A variety of methods were used," I probably would've kept that as well, because it "sounds right" and a lot of people online seem to agree. Many sources say that if it's preceded by "the," then "variety of" would be singular. But if it's "a," then it's not.

So am I wrong? I don't think so, because I still think the emphasis is on "variety," plus "of..." is a preposition, and it seems like prepositions create subsets of the main subject. But according to language nerds discussing this stuff online, I'm wrong because it's "a." And what doesn't help is that the Oxford learner dictionary seems to contradict itself; they say (ha ha, I'm breaking the grammar rule here; I should say "it says") "There is a wide variety of..." but later on they say "A plural verb is needed after a/an (large, wide, etc.) variety of...A variety of reasons were given."

I like Grammar Girl's explanation; it seems more forgiving: "Some people get tripped up when a prepositional phrase comes after a collective noun that is the subject of a sentence. For example, if you're talking about 'a large group of students,' 'group' is the collective noun and the subject of the sentence; however, it's easy to get distracted by the prepositional phrase 'of students' because it sounds plural. The thing to remember is that the verb takes its cue from the subject of the sentence--'a large group'--and not from the prepositional phrase that modifies the subject. In cases like this, just ignore the prepositional phrase 'of students' and take your cue from the real subject: 'a large group'.”

So according to GG, I'm correct. Plus American English (which I'm a native speaker of [of which I'm a native speaker]) uses the singular, while Brits use plural. And just to make sure, I asked a writing group that I sometimes meet with what they think, and all of them agree with what I did.

Thus I think I made the right decision, though I'm still struggling with "a number of," which I'll discuss in another post.