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I can not explain why "an" is used in the phrase "an estimated 2 million people are".

In addition, I can find many examples in which such phrases are treated as plural although the noun phrase takes "an". When the noun 'people' is a collective noun, it may be possible to say/write "an estimated 2 million people is". But I am not sure about this.

Can anyone explain the grammar?

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    For the use of a/an in a phrase regarded as plural, see some examples in this answer. In fact, the question of "An estimated 2 million people" falls into similar patterns also shown in that my answer. – user6951 Dec 23 '14 at 14:14
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    Insert "an estimated (number of) 2 million people" and you will understand this elliptic structure better. – rogermue Dec 23 '14 at 17:53
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    Your example involves a parsing where the article "a" is not the determiner for the matrix NP, e.g. "[a good] three hefty steaks" (CGEL pg 353, [70.iv]). Also, consider "[an additional] two million people". – F.E. Dec 23 '14 at 18:12
  • I have to disagree with @rogermue, I'm afraid. That phrasing confuses the issue even more because it makes "number" the subject instead of "people." – Jesse Dec 23 '14 at 19:00
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    @DamkerngT. now that I think of it, you're right. "A number of people were asked…", "A number of meals were served…". I still think it fails to clarify the question, though, since it leaves the same "why is this verb plural/singular?" question as before. – Jesse Dec 23 '14 at 19:17
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I would explain it with "an estimated number of two million people". The following verb may be singular or plural as in

1 An estimated number of people was killed in the war.

Here the verb sg refers grammatically to "number" (sg).

2 An estimated number of two million people were killed in the war.

Here the verb pl refers logically to "two million people" (pl).

As a non-native speaker I can't decide which possibility is preferred or more frequent. I would tend to use the verb pl. In the same way as I say "There were a lot of people there". The verb pl refers to the logical idea of "many people" and not to the grammatical head "lot" of the noun group "a lot of people".

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    This is the answer that makes the most sense to me. Estimated doesn't seem to modify people; you can't say "Two million estimated people were killed." Likewise, the indefinite article an isn't applied to people either; you don't say "a people were killed." It makes more sense if an estimated applies to the implied noun number. – Nate Eldredge Jan 16 '15 at 6:59
  • @NateEldredge - You are right. Only by inserting "number of" the expression makes sense. The question whether "estimated" is a noun leads astray. – rogermue Jan 16 '15 at 7:05
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an estimated is just a modifier to indicate the 2 million people is not exact, so the verb form would be plural.

If we somehow knew the correct number (without context I would believe there is a number), substituting that number would not change the tense. As such it is still plural and not a collective noun.

You could say a similar thing (to the extent an actual quantity exists) as:

approximately 2 million people are

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    I agree for the most part. I wouldn't say that "approximately" has the same meaning as "an estimated" though. "Approximately" implies that the actual number is known, but not with perfect accuracy. "An estimated" makes it clear that the actual number is not known, and had to be estimated using indirect means. – Jesse Dec 23 '14 at 18:16
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    Did I change the tense? Are or is--they are the same tense, present, aren't they? Or are you talking about "estimated"? It is past participle to modify nouns, isn't it? – 243 Dec 23 '14 at 18:37
  • @243 Sorry I wrote that wrong, it is not about tense. Please check my edit. – user3169 Dec 23 '14 at 20:44
  • @Jesse The quantity is not known (that is why I said "If we somehow knew"), but it has to exist. And it will be plural. I edited my answer to try to say this better. – user3169 Dec 23 '14 at 20:49
  • @user3169 Of course! I didn't mean to suggest that your use of plural was incorrect. I only took issue with you saying that the two phrases were "the same." Your edited version addresses my concern perfectly. – Jesse Dec 23 '14 at 21:00
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An is linked to the word 'estimated'.
An is used because the word 'estimated' starts with a vowel.
An has nothing to do with '2 million people'.

  • In my knowledge, a/an is used with a noun. If the an as in "an estimated 2 million people are" is not used for "2 million people", the 'estimated' should be a noun. So, I need a little more explanation for this. – 243 Jan 1 '15 at 16:55
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From what I heard, you can sometimes refer to the same word as plural or singular. It depends on what's important for you.

The community are glad have a lot of money. (a community made out of many people)
The community is glad to have a lot of money. (only a community)
The communities are glad to have a lot of money. (many communities)

At the same time the word "people" is singular and plural anyway ("many people" is not "peoples"). Confusing.

Back to your example: an estimated [2 million people] are

a [group of 2 million people] are
("estimated 2 million people" is to be seen as one element)

You could also say: a [group of people] is

Now use what I just told you about treating a group of people as plural; and you get the following:

an [estimated 2 million people] are

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A simple rule I like to use in these situations is to think about what the (are/is) is referring to, also known as the subject of this sentence. In this case it's the word "people." Since "people" is plural you would use "are."

You may be asking yourself: "But why isn't 'an estimated' the subject?" An easy way to remember this is that you are counting the people. The estimate refers to the people and therefore the word "people" is the subject of the sentence.

Finally, the 'an' is referring to the 'estimated' and not to the people. It is one singular estimate so that's why you use 'an.' If you had several different estimates about the people then you could say something such as: "Several estimated populations are discussed in this paper."

I hope that helps to clarify the concept for you!

  • "estimated" is not noun, but a/an is used for nouns. Isn't is contradictory, is it? – 243 Jan 15 '15 at 17:55
  • Good point. You're right, in this case "estimated" is actually acting as a noun. As another commenter noted, "approximately" is a cleaner word to use... although the meaning is not exactly the same. I edited my answer and gave you a different example for the second point to (hopefully) makes things clearer. – Olek Wojnar Jan 16 '15 at 2:58

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