I am confused about whether "a fraction" should be used as single or plural.

I read this post: Should you use a plural verb if you refer to a fraction?, but it is still not clear to me. I understand examples (a) and (b) given there:

(a) One-third of the city is unemployed. [correct]

(b) One-third of the people are unemployed. [correct]

However, which of the following is correct and why, please?

(c) A fraction of the people is unemployed. [Is this correct?]

(d) A fraction of the people are unemployed. [Or is this correct?]

My spell check says (c), but that seems contradictory to (b), is it not? Thank you.


Language is not logic.

A fraction of [collective noun]

used as the subject of a verb is not given the treatment normally accorded to a subject noun modified by an adjectival phrase.

In the normal case, for example

The brother of those two women is also a singer

the subject is singular and determines the number of the verb (also singular) even though the modifying adjectival phrase refers to a non-singular noun (women).

"Fraction of X" is unusual. The number of the noun following after "of" determines the number of the verb. For example

Only one quarter of his students are going on that field trip.

The idea here seems to be that more than one but definitely not all of the students are going, which does not reflect the strict mathematical definition of "fraction." So it is a plural number who are going.

One third of the city is unemployed

does not refer to multiple cities, but to a single city, and so takes a singular verb.

When we get to collective nouns, we can look to the actual number presumably referred to or to the grammatical number of the noun.

One quarter of his class is going on the field trip

is idiomatic as is

One quarter of his class are going on the field trip.

Personally, I prefer the former but I have certainly heard the latter from educated native speakers.

| improve this answer | |
  • Thank you very much for your detailed explanation, Jeff. So the short answer is that you prefer (c), but both (c) and (d) are correct? Thanks again. – Sylvia Rodriguez Sep 3 '19 at 23:13
  • @SylviaRodriguez I would say that, based on the answer, (d) would be preferred. Since people is a plural subject, the fraction would similarly sound better as a fraction. (People is not a collective noun, so it follows the pattern of the middle part of the answer, not the last part.) – Jason Bassford Sep 4 '19 at 2:03
  • My preference for "is" was expressed with reference to "class," which is a collective noun. I cannot agree with Jason that "people" is never a collective noun, but in the context of your example, it seems more idiomatic to interpret it as plural in meaning, which leads to "are," My example of "class" is always (almost always?) a collective noun. Your question is good because fractions are exceptions from one rule. Collective nouns are exceptions. And "people" is not consistently a collective noun. You have exception on exception on exception. English is not easy. – Jeff Morrow Sep 4 '19 at 3:37
  • @JasonBassford and Jeff - Thank you both for your extensive explanations. – Sylvia Rodriguez Sep 4 '19 at 4:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.