Sunday, March 24, 2013

Can 'a succession of' take a plural verb?

On the language website Pain in the English, in a discussion about whether it was ever posssible to use a capital letter after a colon, a commenter recently wrote:
Capitalize after the colon if there are a secession of sentences following
It wasn't so much the capitalisation issue that interested me as the next comment:
I am sure you meant to say, "Capitalize after the colon if there IS a succession of sentences," not "ARE."
Apart from the fact that I find it rather bad manners to "correct" other people's grammar uninvited, I wasn't totally convince that the second commenter was totally justified in his criticism. But I could find nothing about a succession of in any usage book or on the web, so I decided to investigate a bit.

There are a lot of ..., etc

We already know that the expression a lot of takes a singular verb with uncountable nouns, and a plural verb with a countable noun (lot is described by some dictionaries as a noun, and by others as a pronoun).
  • There is a lot of snow at the moment.
  • There are a lot of people in the park.
In those examples, the expression a lot of is being used as a quantifier. But lot is not the only word we can use like this. The same thing happens with expressions like a number of and a couple of, which are always used with countable nouns, and almost always take a plural verb, as can be seen in the Ngram graphs:
  • There are a number of things we still need to do.
  • There are a couple of eggs in the fridge.
Then there are expressions like a handful of, which can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns:
  • There is a handful of rice left.
  • There were a handful of people.
It's interesting to note the change in usage since the mid-70s.
Something similar happens with nouns like majority when followed by a verb, although admittedly we usually use there is/was, not there are/were before it:
  • A small majority were in favour
  • There was a small majority in favour

When acting as quantifiers, singular nouns can sometimes take plural verbs

We can thus establish a principle: when used as quantifiers referring to plural quantities, certain singular nouns, even when following the indefinite article a, can in some contexts take a plural verb. In these cases the normal rules of agreement are suspended.

But what about 'a succession of'?

I wondered if the same could be true of a succession of. First I tried Ngram for Google Books, and I have to admit that the results didn't look too hopeful:
Then I looked at Google Books

Google Books

The figures for Google Books didn't look very promising either:
On the other hand we have some respectable publishers involved here, both in Britain and North America, with examples both modern and old:

Google Search

Results figures for Google Search are rather strange:
Why is there such a divergence between Google Search, where "there are a succession of" outnumbers "there is a succession of" 3 to 1, and Google Books? And why is the difference so huge between present and past tenses? I have no idea. Anyway, here are some examples:
  • These time expressions are used when a there are a succession of events in the past
    About.com ESL
  • There are a succession of these weekly lessons which follow on from each other and as I develop more I will add them to TES.
    TES Connect - (Times Education Supplement - Carolyn Forbes)
  • There are a succession of models in their early twenties who are here for a peel (from £80 to £250) or for Botox
    Mail Online - (The Daily Mail newspaper)
  • While there are a succession of drugs which offer some control over the disease in many cases, a small number of patients do not respond to ...
    BBC News Health
  • "There are a succession of inspection reports which have said that this is a prison with which has had major problems"
    BBC News Kent - quoting Andrew Neilson from the Howard League
  • There are a succession of well-rehearsed historical set pieces each impressive enough on their own but quite breathtaking taken together in a single political career
    History Extra - Martin Farr at "The official website of BBC History Magazine"
  • ... there are a succession of plant associations which come and go over time
    Whisby Nature Park
  • if you take a look at his report, there are a succession of statements
    Vancouver Observer

Wikipedia

And a couple in Wikipedia
  • Where there are a succession of nectar sources throughout the summer season, a honeyflow may last for many weeks.
    Honey flow
  • At the foot of the Causse du Larzac there are a succession of old terraces at around 50 metres (165 ft) above the ...
    Terrasses de Larzac

Conclusions

  • It's not simply enough to say that an expression with a + singular noun must necessarily take a singular verb. We've seen that there are quite a few expressions like this that can and do take a plural verb when acting as quantifiers.
  • So we have to look at usage, and see whether speakers or writers of Standard English in fact use expressions like "a succession of" with plural verbs. And the answer seems to be yes, some people, at least, do.
  • Lastly, I think we have to decide whether it sounds natural in Standard English. And to me I think it does, although I'm well aware I'm skating on pretty thin ice here.

Postscript - A selection

In another recent post, I wrote without thinking "here are a selection of examples" and realised something similar was happening in terms of agreement. It seems as though I'm not alone, although in the minority:

Related post

Dictionaries and links

2 comments:

samirhafzablogblogblog said...

I agree. It's akin to "a series of," after which you can use either "is" or "are."

Warsaw Will said...

Thanks Samir, I'd missed that one. Ngram certainly seems to bear you out, as can be seen here.