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1) A group of boys is playing football.

or

2) A group of boys are playing football.

My teacher told me the first sentence is correct since of boys can be ignored to make:

A group is playing football.

It feels very awkward in my mouth to say boys is.

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  • 1
    The first one is grammatically correct as you're referring to the group which is singular. But I would say "some boys are playing" or "a team is playing" depending on the context. Nov 25, 2015 at 11:32
  • It depends whether you're looking at the British or American usage pattern. In the British pattern, the collective (group) is usually plural; in the American pattern, it's always singular. Nov 25, 2015 at 15:09
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    @StanRogers here in the US, I was always taught to use the form that would be appropriate when switching to third-person pronoun e.g. "they are playing football" not "they is playing football."
    – user17983
    Nov 25, 2015 at 15:45
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    In AE, you usually say a group of boys are playing., while in BE, you can say either a group of boys is playing or a group of boys are playing, without any difference in meaning.
    – Khan
    Nov 25, 2015 at 19:48
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    Weighing in with AuE. We're taught that the singular noun (group) determines the plurality of the sentence hence the correct version is: A group of boys is playing. Exceptions to this are where the singular noun has a strong correlation to a number (eg: couple, trio). But we're Australian, so in general usage, you'll hear both versions without complaint from any but the most pedantic listener.
    – mcalex
    Nov 26, 2015 at 4:07

6 Answers 6

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Yes, you should feel awkward using boys is. But you should not so using a group (of boys) is.

You feel awkward because you think 'is' is for 'boys'.

You should not feel awkward because 'is' is for 'group' there!


I did not think to provide an answer one more level deep. I thought the OP is from a non-native speaking country and this question is a very basic question with a straightforward answer 'a group is'. But since learned registered users here want this answer to be utterly foolproof, I'm adding this.

Okay,

'A group of boys are playing ...'

is possible!

Soon, as Christmas is nearing, you may observe that...

'A number of offers are getting displayed on the hoardings.'

[By 'offer', I mean festive season offers]

How?

Well, here, the noun 'offer' is used in its plural form i.e. 'offers'. And, when you quantify the plural noun with 'A number of', a plural verb ('are') is used which will look more natural.

Quantifying means using some words to show number of something - how much, how many etc. In above sentences, A group of, A number of etc. are used as quantifiers.

Another example can be built:

A lot of monkeys were on the tree

Do you get it?


I've closely observed the education systems in India, and I won't be surprised if 'a group of boys are...' will surprise almost every non-native teacher teaching English! I'm sure this is the same case with Nepal. Said that, if your teacher says that 'a group of boys is playing something'.... it's fine.

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  • 10
    Wait! It should be A/the crowd is/are watching a/the cricket match. Nov 25, 2015 at 12:00
  • 3
    @SantiBailors - my guess is that the possible trend could be to use "the police has" (definite article before "police") when referring to "the police" in general, as an institution, and "police have" (zero article before "police") when referring so some subgroup of the police, a group of policemen. (I'm a non-native speaker) Nov 25, 2015 at 16:51
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    Would you say that 'a group of people feel' or 'a group of people feels'? Because as an L1 speaker the former definitely sounds more natural.
    – Kris
    Nov 25, 2015 at 16:59
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    -1 -- Since I downvoted this answer out of my usual way of voting, and I rarely downvote anything (anyone can check my stats), it deserves a little explanation why I chose to downvote this answer. Normally, I would leave answers which are not exactly right but also not exactly wrong alone. This answer falls into that category. It's not exactly wrong, but because it's focused only on a group (of boys) is (I don't know why it was formatted as code), evading the issue of a group of boys are, which in my opinion is the crux of the question, it could be misleading. Nov 25, 2015 at 20:49
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    (con't) I was hoping that a more correct answer would come along sooner or later, and overcome this answer, but when I revisited this question again some minutes ago, this answer has gotten 11 upvotes, which is okay, votes are opinion-based, not correctness-based, but what would our site become if it's full of "not quite right" or "sorta correct" answers? I hope MaulikV will understand this downvote of mine. -- For any learner who has Practical English Usage, 3rd ed., here is an example from 526.2: A group of us are going to take a boat through the French canals. Nov 25, 2015 at 20:50
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The answer depends on what you want to further assert about that group.

A group of boys are playing football together. ["is" would be wrong or at least very weird here!]

A group of boys are/is playing football on the field. ["is" and "are" mean slightly different things.]

There is only one group of boys playing football on the field. ["are" would be wrong here!]

In general, a group can be viewed as a single unit or as its individuals. The context may allow only one viewpoint, as in the first and third example, or it may allow both viewpoints, as in the second example. Accordingly, you have to decline the verb based on which viewpoint you use. So even the second example must further split depending on the wider context.

Who are playing football on the field? A group of boys are playing on the field.

What is that group of boys doing on the field? That group of boys is playing on the field.

In these two examples above, people normally follow the original viewpoint of the question unless it is necessary to change it, so it would be very unusual to use the opposite number (singular/plural) for the verb, although I think it is still grammatical.

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    "A group ... are" sounds dumb. "A" refers to a singular thing.
    – user20483
    Nov 25, 2015 at 18:45
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    I think group is often used as a singular thing and so it's less obvious but is more obvious if you consider "A pair of boys is/are playing football together." Even though 'A pair' can be a singular thing the phrase "A pair of boys is playing football together" sounds very strange to me.
    – Pace
    Nov 25, 2015 at 19:48
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    @nocomprende: As an L1 English speaker, "A group of boys are playing together" is absolutely correct, and "A group of boys is playing together" is absolutely incorrect. Both are grammatically correct, but only the first one is semantically correct (because of the word "together" which denotes plurality). You are free to think that correct English grammar "sounds dumb" if you want, it does not change the fact that it is correct. Nov 25, 2015 at 23:30
  • @DietrichEpp: Thank you for confirming my native-speaker intuition. Sometimes there's really no way to know whether what I say is accepted by the majority of other native speakers until they say the same. =)
    – user21820
    Nov 26, 2015 at 5:55
  • @DietrichEpp The ELL group is having a discussion. The company is going out of business. That couple is being indiscreet. "I am unanimous in this." (from the TV show Are You Being Served :-) To user21820 - I am a native speaker also.
    – user20483
    Nov 27, 2015 at 23:22
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As an antidote do all the people saying 'group is singular, therefore you should use is', here's a Language Log post by Geoff Pullum arguing against plural agreement for quantificational uses of mass nouns.

As a L1 (British) English speaker, I would definite use are over is.

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  • Your choice is fine in most cases but not in special cases such as the third example in my answer. There is also an explanation why some native speakers prefer the plural verb when it occurs after the noun phrase. It is called attraction, where the number of the verb (and case in other languages) sometimes gets attracted to the adjacent noun phrase if that adjacent noun phrase actually does refer to the actual subject. This attraction of course only makes a difference when the actual subject and the adjacent noun phrase have different number, like in "a group of boys are...".
    – user21820
    Nov 26, 2015 at 6:03
  • @user21820: I would argue that your third example is definitely not a quantificational usage ;)
    – Kris
    Nov 26, 2015 at 10:18
  • That's strange. It certainly is. In first-order logic it says "There exists a unique group of boys G such that G is playing football on the field.", as opposed to more than one different group of boys.
    – user21820
    Nov 26, 2015 at 14:07
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1 Your ear is right. Sometimes we make the verb agree with the closest noun, even if that noun is not the subject of the sentence. This is true especially with longer sentences, when the actual subject is far away from the verb.

As an example of this, in A Comprehensive Grammar to the English Language, the authors give several examples, including

The President, with his advisors, are preparing a statement on the crisis.

This may not be grammatically correct, but on the basis of proximity, it is something that many might say and believe correct, because it sounds better.

Your sentence sounds even worse to me (native speaker of American English) in the past tense:

a. A group of boys was playing in the yard. (sounds yucky)
b. A group of boys were playing in the yard.

(a) is okay, because was agrees with group (considered as a singular noun), and many teachers and speakers will prescribe that this is the only correct usage.

But to many native speakers
(b) is also okay, because of two reasons. First, boys is the nearest noun and, as you say, the sentence can sound off/wrong to some when they use a singular verb next to the plural boys.

And, second, there is a more technical answer:

2 With words such as group there is a special use:

Collecting noun phrases (a bunch of, a group of, a set of, etc.) take either a singular or plural verb, depending on whether the emphasis is on the individual units or on the group as whole:

A group of boys were digging in my flower beds!
A set of 12 dishes is all you need for the dinner party.

From Grammar Bite: Making Subjects and Verbs Agree

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  • I have to disagree. Matching the "closest noun" may "sound right", but doesn't make sense. Consider, "The father of two boys was/were talking." Would you say it should be "were" because "boys" is closer to the verb than "father" and "boys" is plural? But that makes no sense. Only one person is talking: the father.
    – Jay
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:49
  • @Jay This is true especially with longer sentences, when the actual subject is far away from the verb. Quirk et al gives as an example: The President, with his advisors, are preparing a statement on the crisis. This may not be grammatically correct, but on the basis of proximity (advisors with are), it is something that many might say and believe correct, because it sounds better. I have added this example to my answer.
    – user20792
    Nov 30, 2015 at 22:00
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English is not my mother tongue. Dutch is. But according to my english teacher, one should look at the subject of the sentence.

A group of boys is/are playing football

Who is/are playing football?

A group of boys.

A group of boys is actually singular. We are talking about a single group here. So the verb used on this subject should be singular too.

This makes: a group of boys is playing football.

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  • This makes sense because it is possible to pluralize it: two groups of boys are playing, one group plays football, the other soccer.
    – user20483
    Nov 25, 2015 at 18:42
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    L1 English speaker here. This answer is incorrect. "A group of X" can either be grammatically plural or singular in the English language. I believe that there are two parallel ways to parse it: you can either make "X" the head or you can make "group" the head, and the only way to know the correct one is by thinking of the semantics. This is a bit confused by the prescriptivists who are over-eager to apply simple rules. I am firmly a descriptivist, however, and this answer is incorrect w.r.t. how English is actually written and spoken. I believe that Chicago style guide agrees with me. Nov 25, 2015 at 23:39
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I understand that conventions on this are different in the UK than in the US. But speaking of REAL English, like we speak it here in America ... :-)

Your teacher is correct: "a group is". Yes, it may sound strange to you to say "boys is" together, but that's just a coincidence of the way the words in the sentence were ordered. The subject is not "boys", but "group".

Consider this sentence: "The man who owns three houses is tall." Would you think that you should use "are" instead of "is" because "houses" is plural? No, because the subject of the sentence is not "houses", but "man". The man is tall; it is not the houses that are tall.

Same thing here. Grammatically, it is not the "boys" who are playing football, but the "group". Yes, in real life the "group" and the "boys" are the same thing, but GRAMMATICALLY they are distinct.

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