1

I got confused between these two sentences:

The number of poisonous snakes is/are there on the tree.

A number of poisonous snakes is/are there on the tree.

Could anybody explain the difference in semantics of these two sentences. Also what to take verb with these two variations?

3

The first sentence is quite artificial:

The number of poisonous snakes is there on the tree.

This means that there is a number painted or written or attached to the tree. That number tells you how many poisonous snakes there are somewhere. It doesn't make sense without a context. It wouldn't even make much sense given a context that tries to make sense of it.

A number of poisonous snakes is/are there on the tree.

Some native speakers will argue that this sentence should take a singular copula, is, because the grammatical subject is A number, which is single. Others will argue that it should take a plural, are, because the notional subject, snakes, is plural. Still others will argue that it should take are because the word comes immediately after a plural noun, so it feels and sounds better as a plural.

Here's a grammar page that explains the problem a little bit.

I would argue two things. First, the sentence should be this:

A number of poisonous snakes are on the tree. [there is superfluous, IMHO]

and, second, that when you write a sentence like this that you're not sure of, it should be changed to something like this:

There are {many /some /a few [CHOOSE ONE]} poisonous snakes on the tree.

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  • 1
    +1; I appreciate that you presented the case for both is and are, and offered a simpler rewrite! – WendiKidd May 8 '13 at 19:18

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