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Consider the following NPs:

500 years of history

100 liters of milk

300 grams of apple pie

When used as subjects in full clauses, which verb form do these NPs take – singular or plural verb? Am I right in thinking one could argue for either verb form here, depending on whether one sees years or history/liters or milk/grams or apple pie as the head of the NP?

That is, am I right in thinking that if we consider years to be the head of the noun phrase 500 years of history, a subsequent verb should be plural (e.g., 500 years of history are studied in this class), whereas if we consider history to be the head, a subsequent verb should be singular (e.g., 500 years of history is studied in this class), or should the verb always be singular (or plural) in this kind of construction?

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2 Answers 2

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  • 500 years of history

  • 100 liters of milk

  • 300 grams of apple pie

Right, so will a plural or singular verb be used with those phrases?

Answer: that depends on context, register, spoken or written and point of view.

It does not matter whether the noun that comes after the preposition of is countable to uncountable. What matters is how one views the phrases: as single units or if they require being parsed.

  1. Three hundred grams of apple pie is too much for each piece.
    300 grams of apple pie is seen as a single unit.

  2. Three hundred grams of apple pie were used for centerpiece decoration.
    300 hundred grams// of apple pie// is seen as having grams as the subject.

This basically works with all three examples:

Five hundred years//of history mean a lot to me.
Five hundred years of history means a lot to me.

In more formal writing, it is perhaps best to use the plural verb in phrases such as "five hundred years of history" because sticklers might say "five hundred years" is the plural subject of the sentence and "of history" is a prepositional phrase. Those same sticklers might use other grammar language to describe this but the end result is the same: a plural verb. Elsewhere, it doesn't really matter.

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  • Thank you! Exactly what I needed! :) Apr 24, 2022 at 20:13
  • 1
    Thanks for your patience.
    – Lambie
    Apr 24, 2022 at 20:50
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When the quantifier isn't a unit.

100 pieces of cheese are ...

This subject is plural, it refers to 100 things.

When a unit is used

100 grams of cheese is...

Here the meaning (a measurment of a single amount) take priority.

There are some edge cases: if you have 10 pints of beer, this might be considered singular (a single jug of 10 pints) or plural (ten separate pint glasses).

Similarly "100 years of history" can be understood to be a single period of a certain length, or 100 separate named years. On balance plural seems more likely "100 years of history have taught us to be prepared for anything".

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