[A number of boys] were absent.
(The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p56)

This book says that number is the head of the subject NP, but Angela Downing calls it a "determinative" (that is, a "complex quantifier", English Grammar p.433). When I read the sentence, Downing's term seems more natural. Then what's the possible reason Cambridge Grammar sees number as the head of the NP?

  • 2
    – user230
    Commented Jul 17, 2013 at 9:28
  • 1
    Can someone explain why they think this is a "What's your favorite _____?" question? There are four POB close votes, but as far as I can tell, this question asks about a fact ("Why does CGEL call number the head of a number of boys?"). If someone gives their opinion, they've probably given the wrong answer.
    – user230
    Commented Jul 17, 2013 at 16:18
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    OP doesn't ask which we analysis consider correct, Downing or CGEL (which would indeed be a matter of opinion); she asks for the reasoning behind CGEL's analysis. Reopen. Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 22:40
  • I'm probably misunderstanding, but "what is the possible reason" (or, more simply, "why is it") certainly sounds opinion-based, hence my vote. Without the input of the CGEL's writers, it can't really be answered. (Apologies if I've been so blind as to overlook their presense on ELL.) There's some old discussion on MSO about the subject. I'm happy to be wrong or to have misunderstood; more good questions are a good thing for the site. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 21:02

4 Answers 4


In this context I think it's impossible to say that number is the head of the Subject noun phrase a number of boys.

I don't have CGEL, but in Huddleston's precis (A Short Overview of English Syntax) he

  • distinguishes a determinative (a class of word or phrase) from a Determiner (a syntactic function) (3), and
  • defines the Head of a noun phrase as a noun (7.1.b)

It would be consistent with these to say that number is the Head of the noun phrase a number of which acts as the Determiner of the Subject noun phrase a number of boys, thus:

[SUBJECT NOUN PHRASE [DETERMINER NOUN PHRASE Determiner a Head number ?? of] HEAD boys]

REVISED September 2015:
But it may be just a slip, or an improper revision of a passage which was originally something beginning "The number of boys", or any number of things.

I now have CGEL and find that it treats constructions of this sort at section 3.3 (pp. 349-50) under the heading Non-count quantificational nouns. In these expressions, where the "quantificational noun" (number in your example) is complemented by a preposition phrase of + "what we shall call the oblique" (boys in your example)

... the number of the whole NP depends on the oblique; we will say that [number] is number-transparent in that it allows the number of the oblique to percolate up to determine the number of the whole NP. [...] [I]t has been bleached of its original meaning and is a non-count noun [...] The of complement can be omitted in ellipsis, but it remains understood and continues to determine the number of the NP [...]

On pp. 351-2, under the heading "Syntactic structure of NPs like a number of protesters", CGEL contrasts the analysis I have given above with one which understands the quantificational noun as head of the NP:

[NP [Det a] [Head:Nom [Head:N number] [Comp:PP [Head:Prep of] [Comp:NP boys]]]]

CGEL gives fairly compelling syntactic reasons for preferring this analysis to mine.

  • of forms a constituent with the oblique, not with (a) number

    a number __ prefer the old system
    a number of whom complain

  • number takes prehead dependents

    any number of boys
    a large number of boys

I think there is something more to be said, but frankly I don't know what that something is. For the time being I think we have to take number as a head to which the construction imputes plurality.

  • @Listenever See my revision. Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 14:36

I would imagine for the same reason that

a piece

is the head of

a piece of paper


a glass

is the head of

a glass of water

Though I agree with your assessment of Angela Downing.


The head of the noun phrase is "boys", with "A number of" being a quantifier premodifying the head.


"A number of boys was/were injured"

I think you can see it grammatically, then it is "was injured", with number as head or main element of the noun group. As it seems this alternative is rare.

Mostly it is "were injured", seeing "a number of" logically as "a lot of". BNC has mostly "a number of + noun pl + vb pl".

Google Ngram

testden.com - Subject -Verb Agreement has an interesting remark:

A number of + noun plural + vb pl

The number of + noun pl + vb sg


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