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In school we were taught that a subject in singular form required a corresponding verb, for example:

The multitude of insects is astonishing.

multitude is singular, therefore is must be used.

But now I have been told by an experienced (but not native) speaker that a subject with a plural meaning can be used with a verb "in plural form", for example:

The multitude of insects are astonishing.

multitude means plural, therefore are can be used.

Is this just an exception which is not taught to English language learners, or is it informal use, or is this wrong altogether?

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This involves the question of whether a collective noun should be parsed as singular or plural; but it is more complicated than that, because multitude is actually used in three different senses: as a collective noun, as a singular noun, and, with of, as a quantifier.

The multitude was/were blessed by the Archbishop. ... Here multitude is a collective noun signifying a large group of people who were collectively, not individually, blessed. It may take either a singular or a plural verb.

The multitude of false positives is very discouraging. ... Here multitude is a singular noun signifying ‘(large) quantity’—literally, ‘manyness’. It is not the false positives which are discouraging but the fact that there was a large number of them. It takes a singular verb.

A multitude of celebrities are scheduled to appear. ... Here a multitude of is equivalent to ‘many’, like a lot of or a whole bunch of. It takes a plural verb.

In your example, “The multitude of insects is astonishing”, it seems to me that the second sense is intended, and you should use the singular verb.

None of these uses is ‘incorrect’ in any register. The second use, however, is more likely to be found in formal registers, and may give ordinary readers pause. If you are writing for a non-academic audience I would suggest something more like

The occurrence of so many false positives is very discouraging.

The third use, on the other hand, is characteristic of informal registers; it is unlikely to be used in a formal context by practised writers, who will avoid both its hyperbole and its implicit ambiguity:

Many celebrities are scheduled to appear.

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It is a common error, but it is an error.

There are many nouns that are singular but that represent some sort of group or collection -- "multitude", "group", "committee", "family", etc. Despite the fact that the group may have more than one member, the noun is still singular and calls for a singular verb.

A related error is when a singular noun is followed by a prepositional phrase that includes a plural noun, like "the oldest of the dogs". Many English speakers, even experienced native speakers, will make the mistake of using the plural form of the verb because the phrase ends with a plural -- "dogs" in this example -- and so they'll say "The oldest of the dogs are ...". It should be "The oldest of the dogs is ..." because the subject is "oldest", singular. That might contribute to the problem here, "The multitude of insects", etc.

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    I'm not convinced. Any native speaker recognises "The oldest of the dogs are Fido" as grammatically disastrous. But they don't have a problem with "The vast majority of people are unaware this sentence is ungrammatical" – FumbleFingers May 22 '13 at 18:07
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    -1. Collective nouns are not by definition singular. Neither is oldest. – snailcar May 22 '13 at 20:14
  • Okay, "oldest" was a bad example because it doesn't necessarily mean the one oldest, it could mean those older than average, etc. – Jay May 23 '13 at 16:52
  • @FumbleFingers If you never get confused by this, that's great. But I'm certainly not the first person to suggest that it sometimes causes confusion. See, for example, englishessaywritingtips.com/2011/06/…, grammar.about.com/od/correctingerrors/a/SpecSVA.htm,http://…, etc. I find hundreds of pages on the web that discuss this issue. – Jay May 23 '13 at 17:14
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    Yes, good point: I understand that in the UK, collective nouns are often treated as plurals. In the US, they are normally considered singular, the main exception being when you are talking about the individual members. Like, "The family is going on vacation" -- they are doing it as a unit. But "The family are fighting amongst themselves." – Jay May 24 '13 at 13:20

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