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All examples are mine.
They arose as a result of my interest: whether we must always use verbs in the plural form when these verbs agree with "a (...) number of + noun".


My first example:

(1) There were a great number of apples this year, bigger than usual.

I understand we cannot use "there was" here because "a great number of" is just the quantifier whereas the head noun is "apples".


The next two examples don't seem to me so simple as the above. For this reason I divide them into a- and b-variants:

Mother says to the children:
(2a) There was an integer number of the apples. Now one of them is half eaten. Who did this?
(2b) There were an integer number of the apples. Now one of them is half eaten. Who did this?

Teacher says to the pupils:
(3a) There was an integer number of apples – say nine. John ate three. How many apples are left?
(3b) There were an integer number of apples – say nine. John ate three. How many apples are left?

Tell me please which variants are correct and why?

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  • 1
    I doubt any mother would say: an integer number of apples....
    – Lambie
    Jul 20, 2022 at 15:47
  • You've apparently made two changes: replacing the adjective "great" with the adjective "integer" and inserting a definite article. Why do you think that either of these changes would make a difference? What research have you done on the issue? Jul 20, 2022 at 16:03
  • 1
    "There was a great number of..." is also correct: Ngram
    – gotube
    Jul 20, 2022 at 16:31
  • [A teacher says to a pupil]. It may seem silly but the difference between a and the plural can be very important in English.
    – Lambie
    Jul 20, 2022 at 17:20
  • @Lambie - As you say, there can only be an integer number of so far undivided apples. Nobody would ever say 'There was an integer number of apples'. Jul 20, 2022 at 19:40

4 Answers 4

3

There was a great number of people in the room.
great number is singular. So we use "there was".

There was a person in the room. There were people in room.

There were great numbers of people in the street.

In the second sentence, great numbers is plural. So, we use "there were".

This is really just the regular use of a/plural noun. The trick is knowing what the subjects of the sentences are: a number of people VERSUS numbers of people. The entire phrase is taken into account as a single unit when deciding to put there is/there are at the beginning of the sentence.

BUT, bear in mind:

A great number of people have said this is not accurate. [notice the verb]
A high number of people are suffering in the heat wave.
High numbers of people are suffering in the heat wave.
The high numbers of people suffering from the heat wave are unbelievable.

There is a high number of people suffering in the heat wave. [singular subject]

There are high numbers of people suffering in the heat wave. [plural subject]

there is/there are are governed by what follows them and that may be a phrase with "of" in it.

There was a low number of questions at the meeting.
There were high numbers of test failures for the product.

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  • 5
    As a native Brit I would not bat an eyelid at "there were a great number of people in the room". In fact I'm struggling to actually determine whether I would see it as correct or not (see the answer from Michael for the rationale here). Even if it's not formally correct I suspect this type of number error is very common in informal speech.
    – Muzer
    Jul 21, 2022 at 9:45
  • @Muzer I agree. The oblique "people" is plural in "There were a great number of people in the room". Where "the" occurs, the NP is singular, as in "The number of people arrested was not revealed".
    – BillJ
    Jul 21, 2022 at 10:44
  • Google Ngram shows a marked upturn in the usage of 'were' since about 2012, for some reason (although 'were' has always been favoured over 'was'). In any case, your initial assertion is simply wrong.
    – TonyK
    Jul 21, 2022 at 11:29
  • @Muzer agreed here as a native speaker of AmE - was taught that "a number of" can be considered singular or plural, similar to many other collective nouns. The MLA style guide, as one example, recommends use of singular when the collective is acting "as one" and plural, otherwise - I don't think it's really black and white and would consider either one reasonable in many cases. Jul 21, 2022 at 13:23
  • 1
    A great number of people were there. There were a great number of people. The number of people there was great. Jul 21, 2022 at 14:49
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Although the expression ‘a number’ is strictly singular, the phrase ‘a number of’' is used with plural nouns. This applies whether or not modifiers such as 'great', 'large', 'small', 'unknown' come before 'number'. The verb should therefore be plural:

A number of people are waiting for the bus.

Only a small number of universities have been able to raise substantial sums.

A great number of students volunteer each year for environmental projects.

This is not the case with ‘the number’, which is still singular:

The number of people here has increased since this morning.

2

This gets to a broader question of notional vs formal agreement.

Formal agreement is where verbs agree with the grammatical number, whereas notional agreement is where verbs agree with the semantic number.

Viewing "a [adjective] number of" as the head of a genitive phrase, both British and American English prefer notional agreement (a trend that is even more pronounced without an adjective, to the extent that I'd say using formal agreement there would be incorrect: British, American). This is likely because, as you suggest, "number of" behaves as a determiner instead, with the verb agreeing with the following noun rather than with the singular "number". Other determiners that appear to be the heads of genitive phrases (e.g. "a lot of", "a load of", etc) behave similarly with the verb generally agreeing with the number of the following noun - they exhibit so-called "number transparency".

This preference is weaker in American English (likely due to the general trend towards formal agreement), and was weaker still 200 years ago.

This is likely because 200 years ago grammarians of English got very interested in trying to make the language more "logical". This was the same era that saw prohibitions against double negatives (which more-or-less stuck in many varieties), as well as other prohibitions against slitting infinitives and stranding prepositions that failed to stick in any variety.

One of the prescriptions that was come up with in this era was that collective nouns should only take formal agreement. This is still largely followed in American English, whilst British English allows collective nouns to take either formal or notional agreement with slightly different nuance.

Formal agreement emphasises unified action, whilst notional agreement emphasises the individual components of the collective. If I say "the audience turns around" this suggests they are turning as one, in a co-ordinated way, whilst "the audience turn around" suggests no such cohesion - they are behaving as individuals turning around at slightly different times, speeds, etc.

In all your examples, the norm in either British or American English is to use notional agreement and say "were".

In other examples where you have a collective noun, it depends on whether you are aiming to follow British or American norms and the nuance you are aiming for, with formal agreement using "was" unlikely to be seen as incorrect in either norm, but notional agreement using "were" possibly seeming more natural in a British norm, but incorrect in an American one.

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  • wikipedia has a section discussing differences in subject-verb agreement between British and American English (mostly coming down to this notional vs formal agreement distinction) here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Tristan
    Jul 21, 2022 at 14:44
  • 1
    It's not a matter of formal vs notional agreement. It works like this: with non-count quantificational nouns like "number", "lot", "loads", "couple" etc., there is 'number transparency', whereby the number of the whole NP depends not on the head noun but on the noun that is complement to the preposition "of" (called the 'oblique'). As it happens, "number" permits only plural obliques. so the the NP is always plural with a plural verb. By contrast, "lot" permits both singular and plural obliques, so we have "A lot of work was done" and "A lot of errors were made".
    – BillJ
    Jul 21, 2022 at 15:28
  • I do in fact discuss this, although could probably have been clearer (I will edit) when I say they behave as determiners and exhibit what would (if they were viewed as heads of genitive phrases) be notional agreement. Both of these ideas, and the idea that they exhibit number transparency are fully equivalent analyses. The thrust of my answer was that the question raises a broader one which I also addressed
    – Tristan
    Jul 21, 2022 at 15:34
1

[1] A great number of apples were produced this year.

[2] There were a great number of apples this year.

In both [1] and [2], involving the non-count quantificational noun "number", the number of the whole NP depends on the number of the oblique, i.e. the noun that is complement to "of".

In [1] "apples" is plural, so the the NP is plural, requiring the plural verb "were".

In [2] the occurrence of "there" as subject has no affect on the number of the NP: as in [1] the oblique is the plural "apples" so, again, the whole NP is plural, requiring the plural "were".

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