Which verb to use, 'is' or 'are', in the following case?

A handful of soldiers is/are always better than a mouthful of arguments.

The original sentence, that I've got uses 'is'; I wonder why, and why not 'are'?

Could we use either? One in one context, other in some other context? Please explain!

On the contrary, I've got the following cases when 'a handful of'+plural is followed by a plural verb;

  1. Only a handful of activists are articulate in our union.
  2. Only a handful of people know the fact.
  3. Only a handful of men want to take childcare leave.

Edit: I think the feeling that it might take a singular verb might be coming because the sentence sounds like;

A hand full of soldiers is always better than a mouth full of arguments.


A handful of soldiers is/are always better than a mouthful of arguments.

Are is more preferred than is for this sentence.

The actual usages show that it's depend on the meaning.

enter image description here The graph is from Ngram.

Michael Swan says in his Practical English Usage as follows:

Many singular quantifying expressions can be used with plural nouns and pronouns; plural verbs are normally used in this case.

A number of people have tried to find the treasure, but they have all failed.
(More natural than A number of people has tried ...)


  • "The actual usages show that it's depend on the meaning." -- how so? Mar 8 '19 at 7:03
  • From the examples you used in ngram, I see the following; A handful of plural-phrase takes plural verb, and A handful of singular (countable or uncountable) phrase takes singular verb. Agreed? Mar 8 '19 at 7:06
  • 1
    Yes, I agree with you. That's what I mean to say.
    – karlalou
    Mar 8 '19 at 7:08
  • "A number of" is different than "A handful of" because "A number of rice" or "A number of patience" would not make any sense! ^^ Mar 8 '19 at 7:09
  • "A handful of army is always better than a mouthful of arguments." would be correct ^^ Also, "A handful of soldiers are always better than a mouthful of arguments.". I completely agree to your explanations/reasons. Still, did you find the usage of "A handful of" in a book or on a site or so? ^^ Mar 8 '19 at 7:12

The correct way is to relate the verb to "handful", even thought he verb sits closer in the sentence to the other word (soldiers, activists, people, men).

Therefore, since "handful" is singular, the verb must be singular too.

We know that the verb must relate to "handful" because what sits between "handful" and the verb is a genitive (of soldiers, of activists, of people, of men).

And we also know that a genitive CANNOT be the subject in a sentence.

So it is correct to say:

A handful of soldiers is / are always better than a mouthful of arguments.

On the other hand, if the sentence was:

Some soldiers is / are better

The meaning is exactly the same, but the grammar is different. Here "soldiers" is the subject, and "some" is an attribute for "soldiers" (expressing count / quantity).

So in this case, the correct sentence is:

Some soldiers is / are better

  • Would you use a singular verb in all the three other sentences as well that I presented as counter examples? Mar 6 '19 at 7:29
  • All 4 sentences follow the same pattern, so singular is the correct form.
    – virolino
    Mar 6 '19 at 10:11
  • Now, I am confused.. I think singular verb would be preferred if it is referred to a group (as in my first example) and plural verb otherwise (as in other three examples of mine). Mar 6 '19 at 13:05
  • All your examples, 1+3, follow the same structure: handful of + something + verb, so the same solution applies to all. To be correct, "something" must in plural form (and your examples are correct), and the verb in singular (in your examples, the verbs are in plural). Please read the answer again, more carefully.
    – virolino
    Mar 6 '19 at 13:14
  • 1
    Well, it seems we need a third opinion. I am one and you are one and we cannot decide which is right :)
    – virolino
    Mar 6 '19 at 13:44

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