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  1. 85% of the population of the USA is Christian.

  2. 85% of the population of the USA are Christian.

Which one is correct?

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    "Population" is a singular noun, so one would expect singular agreement. But it's also a collective noun, so singular agreement can be overridden, i.e. you can use either singular "is" or plural "are". – BillJ Jan 11 at 18:20
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As user BillJ says in a comment, singular nouns normally require singular agreement in that construction with percent (BrE per cent), while collective nouns which would normally be followed by a verb in the singular could also take a plural verb. A plural noun would, similar to the first case, require a plural verb.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) by Huddleston et al., 2002, gives these examples on page 504:

  1. One percent of studentsPLURAL takes / take drugs.
  2. One percent of the electorateNORMALLY SINGULAR takes / take drugs.
  3. One percent of the cheeseSINGULAR was / were contaminated.

Population, like the electorate above, is a collective noun which normally takes a singular verb, with a possible plural override, so the sentence in question would be grammatical with either is or are:

85% of the population of the USA is / are Christian.


This works because percent is a so-called number-transparent noun, like lot in a lot of students take drugs and a lot of the cheese was contaminated, so the number of the oblique (students, the electorate, the cheese in the sentences above) is allowed to "percolate" up to determine the number of the entire noun phrase (such as a lot of students (plural) or one percent of the cheese (singular)).

For more information see pp.349–50; 501–504 in CGEL.

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    Hmmm... I'm picturing one percent of a particular elector taking drugs. – puppetsock Jan 11 at 21:17

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