11
  1. A variety of pleasant items in the shop attract [plural] everybody.

  2. A variety of animals are kept at the zoo.

  3. A wide variety of dishes is essential for a successful restaurant.

  4. A variety/range of products exists.

As far as I know "A variety" takes singular verbs.

Now my doubt is that in #1 and #2 it uses plural verb but in case of #3 and #4 it uses singular verb. Why so?

So does "A variety " takes singular or plural or both?

Somewhere on internet I read that we should treat "A variety" the same way we treat "A number". Is this true?

Some examples are also given:

  • A number of people are causing trouble.

  • The number of troublemakers is only about ten.

  • A variety of books are on the table.

  • The variety of books on the table is unbelievable.

I don't know if these are correct or not.

  • 1
    It appears from past discussions that BrE and AmE use will differ here: Discussion 1, discussion 2. – JMB Mar 24 '15 at 10:07
  • 2
    @JMB Nice link, but not really the same interesting problem :) – Araucaria Mar 26 '15 at 0:18
7

For any word or phrase that implies a set (e.g. variety, assortment, multitude, group, collection, lot, etc.), the best way to decide whether to treat it as singular or plural is to ask yourself "am I referring to the set's members, or to the set itself?" If you're referring to the set's members, use plural. If you're referring to the set itself, use singular (because, even though a set contains multiple things, it is a single thing).

Some examples might help to clarify this distinction. Imagine a florist conversing with one of her customers...

Example 1:

Customer: I'd like to have a bouquet sent to my wife for our anniversary. Would roses be a good choice?

Florist: Certainly, but consider mixing some daisies and lilacs in with the roses. A variety of flowers makes a lovely anniversary bouquet.

Note the use of the singular verb makes in the last sentence. Since the set is being treated as singular, we assume that the florist is making a statement about the set rather than its members. In other words, it's the variety, not the flowers, that she's identifying as that which makes a lovely bouquet.

Example 2:

Customer: I'd like to have a bouquet sent to my wife for our anniversary. Would roses be a good choice?

Florist: Certainly, but roses aren't your only option; you could send daisies or lilacs instead. A variety of flowers make a lovely anniversary bouquet.

The last sentence is exactly the same as the previous example's, except that the singular verb makes has been replaced with the plural make. The grammar is still correct, but the meaning has changed. This time, the florist is saying that any of the set's members can be used to create a lovely bouquet. She's not suggesting that the bouquet should contain the whole set (as in the previous example).

So both forms are correct, and the one you should use depends on the message you're trying to convey.

It's worth noting that many native English speakers-- myself included-- often mess this up, so you'll probably have to use context to figure out what we mean most of the time. Plural verbs seem to be preferred when the necessity of distinguishing between the set and its members is absent or unclear. In fact, you could probably get away with always using plural verbs. This is somewhat ironic since singular verbs have the advantage of not conflicting with the indefinite articles a and an (e.g. a variety, an assortment), which are exclusively singular. But for some reason, we prefer to break the rules in this case.

One reason may be the verb's close proximity to the noun that identifies the set's members (e.g. the flowers in "a variety of flowers"). Since that word is plural, it "feels right" to follow it with a plural verb, even if the actual subject of the sentence (the set) is singular.

Another reason may be that phrases like a variety of, a lot of, an assortment of, etc. are often used as substitutes for adjectives like various, many, some-- words that typically describe plural subjects and are therefor accompanied by plural verbs (e.g. "various flowers make lovely bouquets"). When people make this substitution, they may not feel comfortable changing the verb to its singular form because in their minds, they're still referring to multiple things as opposed to one.

So there is some gray area, but most of the time you'll do well to follow the rule described at the top of this post.

Note on definitions: The word variety has several meanings, of which the most relevant to the current topic is "diverse set". When it's preceded by the word the, as in "the variety of books on the table is unbelievable", it usually means "diversity" or "type". Those meanings have their own usage rules which are beyond the scope of this answer.

4

Yes, I think think the bulleted examples are correct.

And by that logic, all of your numbered examples should take plural verbs.

But somehow #3 sounds fine with a singular verb.

Complicating the issue of whether "variety" follows the pattern of "number" is the fact that that there can be two different meanings for "a variety of..." (an assortment of differing items, OR one particular kind from among many related items—analogous to a genus within a species)

"The variety" typically means the first of the above, while "one variety" or "the xxx variety" implies the latter sense.

None of this explains why #3 seems okay. Perhaps someone else can help.

  • Can i conclude that "A variety" always takes plural verb except some sentences like #3. In case of #4 i still have doubt. I found a sentence "A variety of dishes is/are being prepared." In this we can use singular or plural both but don't know why? So the rule "a variety " always takes plural seem unreliable. – starun008 Mar 22 '15 at 12:36
  • yeah, it does seem unreliable. Even for your numbered sentences, which are all examples of the first sense I cited, not the second. – Brian Hitchcock Mar 22 '15 at 13:06
  • I think, as Brian Hitchcock suggested, it's about a variety as "a collection (or a number) of things" vs. a/the variety as "a type of things". – Damkerng T. Mar 22 '15 at 13:53
  • 2
    In #3, are and is mean different things. A variety of dishes are essential for a successful Chinese restaurant: every Chinese restaurant should serve General Gao's Chicken, Peking Ravioli, and Lo Mein noodles. A variety of dishes is essential for a successful Chinese restaurant: every Chinese restaurant should have dozens of different dishes on the menu. In other words, are the dishes essential, or is the variety essential? – Peter Shor Mar 25 '15 at 0:17
4

Singular form here is used when "a variety" is the subject. Try to remove all supplemental words and it will become clear:

  1. A variety of items attract everybody
  2. A variety of animals are kept
  3. A variety of dishes is essential
  4. A variety of products exists

In simple words, the "variety" is treated differently depending on what you stress and what you talk about:

  • a variety of something else, where "a variety of" substitutes the number;

  • the variety itself, where it is treated as a main subject.

  • In your case there should be singular in case of 2 sentence "A variety of animals are kept at the zoo." Because its obvious everyone knows in Zoo it keeps animal. So here we are talking about a variety[of animal]. So it should be "A variety [of animal] is kept at the zoo". I don't know if I am correct but I do that according to your answer – starun008 Mar 26 '15 at 10:59
  • 1
    It all depends on the context. "A variety of animals are kept at the zoo" states that animals are kept at the zoo and there is a variety (many) of them. However if we say "A variety of animals is the key to attract visitors to the zoo", we mean that it is variety which is important for the zoo (A variety is the key). – YB_Evil Mar 26 '15 at 12:50
3
+50

The third and fourth example are incorrect if we believe dictionaries

OALD has an entry explaining this:

A plural verb is needed after a/an (large, wide, etc.) variety of A variety of reasons were given.

Another good reference I found is from Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd.

As a collective noun, variety, when preceded by 'a', is often treated as a plural -- A variety of inexpensive goods are sold here.

When preceded by 'the', it is usu. treated as a singular -- The variety of products is small.

  • 2
    In my experience, the usage rules aren't as arbitrary as that dictionary implies. In reference to the OP's 3rd example, it would make sense to replace the singular "is" with the plural "are" if you think there are various specific dishes (e.g. steak, beans, jello) that a restaurant must serve to be successful. But I think the speaker was saying it's the variety that's important, not the specific dishes that comprise it. A variety is a set (with diverse members). A set should be addressed as a single entity. Therefore, I think the 3rd example should be left as-is. The 4th one works either way. – DoctorDestructo Mar 26 '15 at 17:49
  • -1 I disagree with "OALD has an entry explaining this:". First, the dictionary doesn't really try to explain anything. Second, how would you explain There is a wide variety of patterns to choose from, which is listed under the same entry, and is pretty much like the third example, the one you mark decisively as incorrect. – Damkerng T. Mar 28 '15 at 16:01
  • @DamkerngT. Because it says with 'wide or large' it takes plural. I've bold faced it. – Maulik V Mar 28 '15 at 17:34
1

I think that in each sentence is hidden a relative clause.For instance,

1.A variety of pleasant items in the shop which (is referred to items) attract everybody.

2.A variety of animals which(is referred to these animals of the variety) are kept at the zoo.

3.A wide variety of dishes which (is referred to this wide variety) is essential for a successful restaurant.

4.A variety/range of products which (is referred to this variety) exists.

5.A number of people who are causing trouble.

and so on.

The relative pronouns which define the object are omitted.

I am not native speaker, so there is a possibility of error.

-1

The noun is variety. Its verb should be singular. The modifier, "of people" seems to indicate a plural because people means more than one. However, if you remove "of people," variety would obviously take a singular verb.

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