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Should you use a plural verb if you refer to a fraction?

Nine tenths of the pillar have rotted away.

I think has should be used here, but I'm not sure.

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    The fraction is considered a singular quantity, just as the plural "20 ml" in "Twenty milliliters of reagent was added to the culture medium" and the plural "US$5" in "Five American dollars is a lot to pay for something like that". Ergo, "Nine tenths of the pillar has rotted away" is correct. – user264 Apr 11 '13 at 10:41
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    @BillFranke: You should write that as an answer. – Matt Apr 11 '13 at 11:09
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    @Bill Franke's comment is wrong. A fraction has the same plurality as the thing it modifies. "Nine tenths of the pillar has rotted away", but "nine tenths of the pillars have fallen down". – Peter Shor Apr 11 '13 at 11:49
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    @Peter: My comment may be incomplete, Peter, but it isn't "wrong". And you have no references. It answers the OP's question (& I've turned it into an answer, so now it's a complete referenced answer). Just last week, by the way, I was chided for giving the OP more than was asked for. Had the OP asked about "nine tenths of the pillars has fallen down", rest assured that I would have said it was grammatically incorrect. I hope you don't believe that I think otherwise. Notice, please that my comment says "just as the plural '20 ml' in [a similar S]". – user264 Apr 11 '13 at 12:30
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    Bill: I agree; I should have said incomplete. – Peter Shor Apr 11 '13 at 12:32
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The fraction is considered a singular quantity in this particular sentence, just as the plural 20 ml in "Twenty milliliters of reagent was added to the culture medium" and the plural US$5 in "Five American dollars is a lot to pay for something like that". Ergo, "Nine tenths of the pillar has rotted away" is correct.

Here's what one grammar "expert" says:

Rule 9
"With words that indicate portions—percent, fraction, part, majority, some, all, none, remainder, and so forth —look at the noun in your of phrase (object of the preposition) to determine whether to use a singular or plural verb. If the object of the preposition is singular, use a singular verb. If the object of the preposition is plural, use a plural verb.

Examples:

Fifty percent of the pie has disappeared.
Pie is the object of the preposition of.
Fifty percent of the pies have disappeared.
Pies is the object of the preposition.
One-third of the city is unemployed.
One-third of the people are unemployed."

[My emphasis. "City" is singular, as is "pillar"; "people" is plural, but "pillar" is not: it would be were it "pillars", but that ain't the case.]

Another "authority" says this:

Fractions and percentages

Fractions and percentages take the singular when they modify a mass noun and the plural when they modify a plural noun; either the singular or the plural may be used when they modify a collective noun.

Fifty percent [Can be replaced by nine-tenths] of those children have psychological problems.

One-half [Can be replaced by nine-tenths] of the cake has been eaten." [Italicized words in square brackets are my editorial additions.]

This kind of structure is one of those hotly contested usages that twist the brow and carpals as they twist the subarachnoid cerebellar noodles as if they were merely British knickers or American panties. I recommend a cold shower for anyone who suffers from this fractional syndrome.

  • I liked the link. +1 for that. – Sudhir Apr 12 '13 at 6:00
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Largely ditto on BillFranke. Let me add an additional clarification.

When we are talking about a group of many objects, and we are now taking some fraction of that total number, like "50% of Hungarians" or "two-thirds of the buildings in Toledo", we use a plural verb. This makes sense, because the number is normally expected to be more than one. If we have a group of 100 people and we take 3/4 of them, that's 75 people. "50% of Hungarians are ..." Etc.

When we are talking about a portion of a single object, like "half of Hungary" or "two-thirds of the building", we use a singular verb. "Half of Hungary is ..."

The example brought up in the comments of "$5 is a lot to pay" is a different case. When you discuss a quantity as a quantity, rather than as a collection of objects, you use the singular. For example, "20 members are voting for the rules change", but "20 members is the minimum number required to approve a rules change". In the first case we are talking about a group of people, so it's plural. In the second case we are talking about the number as a number, so it's singular.

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    Since 20 members is not a number (a number is inherently unitless), "20 is the minimum number of members required..." might be a better way to say this. – Yes I use MUMPS Apr 11 '13 at 18:36
  • Yes, it's technically true that "20 members" is not a number, it's a number plus a unit of measure. When I was writing the above I struggled for the right word, because I'm not aware of a word that means "a number plus a unit of measure". A "quantity", perhaps? – Jay Apr 12 '13 at 16:00
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    And oh, okay, you could quibble that "20 members is the minimum number ..." is flawed for the reasons you state. But I think that's a pretty pedantic objection: the meaning is clear, and people say this all the time. – Jay Apr 12 '13 at 16:02
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    If a value like $5 is being used as a single quantity, it should take a singular verb. On the other hand, if someone was annoyed at the number of times he had to pay $1, one could reasonably say that "He thought five dollars were a lot to pay"; note that in the latter case, it may be reasonable to write "...5 dollars were..." but not "...$5 were...". – supercat Oct 13 '14 at 17:31
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    @Jay: I would only expect a construct like "five dollars were a lot" in specific contexts where the term "dollar" was already frequently being used to refer to an individual monetary instrument or transaction. If in context the term "dollar" has already been used a dozen times to describe an individual item, then it may be reasonable to use the term directly as a countable noun. A lot depends upon context, though. – supercat Oct 14 '14 at 19:38

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