Saturday, July 20, 2013

Some random thoughts on a wide range of + is or are

Recently I came across this sentence in an article in the Guardian newspaper, by one of my favourite journalists :
A wide range of activists, both African and European, is furious about the New Alliance
This didn’t sound quite right to me; I’m pretty sure I would have written are furious, not is furious, and if you take away the extra bit in the middle and substitute people for activists, it sounds even weirder:
A wide range of people is furious ….
So which is "correct" - is or are, or perhaps either? I've already posted about a couple of similar expressions, a number of and a succession of, so I decided to investigate.

First stop - the dictionary

The noun range has several meanings, including a type of cooker, the open prairies of cowboy fame and the distance something can travel. But we are really only interested in two meanings here - especially the first:
  • [countable, usually singular] range (of something) a variety of things of a particular type
    • We can offer you a wide range of activities
    • The resort attracts a wide range of people
    • There is a wide range of activities for holidaymakers.
    • The university welcomes students from a wide range of backgrounds.
    • These pencils come in a huge range of colours.
    • We can advise on a whole range of different holiday options.
  • [countable] a set of products of a particular type
    • We stock a wide range of office furniture.
    • They hired a top of the range motor home.
Definitions are from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, but the examples are my own (adapted from various dictionaries).
There is, perhaps, a clue in Oxford's definition - "usually singular", which suggests that plural is also possible. And I did come across this example sentence at Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English:
  • A fairly narrow range of people are responsible for key decisions.

Usage Guides

Usage guides don't seem to be much help, as I haven't been able to find anything about range in my standard ones - Merriam-Webster, Fowlers's and Swan.

What about forums?

The subject has been dealt with on several forums, but I haven't really seen any definitive answers, except the usual split between purists and pragmatists. The purists allow that many people say a wide range of ... are ..., while insisting that a wide range of .... is is the only "correct" version. The pragmatists point to the similarities with expressions like a majority of, which we will have a look at a bit later.
Another problem is that all the forum discussions I've seen involve a range of things, rather than people, for example:
  • A wide range of features (Stack Exchange)
  • A wide range of materials (Word Reference)
  • A wide range of investments (English Forums)

Could a range (of) be similar to a majority (of) and a number of?

One interesting point did come up in the Word Reference forum, however, (although I'm unable to check this), which is that Martin Parrott, in Grammar for English Language Teachers (Cambridge) apparently includes range with words like majority and number where we usually use the plural form, giving the example "A wide range of people were invited", although he also "admits that some people prefer the singular form".
A quick check on Google rather supports Parrott:
  • "A wide range of people were invited" - 529,000
  • "A wide range of people was invited" - 2 (3 with this post)

A majority (of)

In the meaning the largest part of a group of people or things, Oxford Advanced lists majority as [singular + singular or plural verb], giving the examples:
  • The majority of people interviewed prefer TV to radio. (i.e. plural)
  • The majority was/were in favour of banning smoking. (i.e. either)

A number of

I've already written about this on another post, but just to mention that Oxford Advanced give this example:
  • A large number of people have applied for the job. (i.e. plural)

Quantifiers - a lot of etc

There are also several expressions like this where a singular noun acts as a quantifier, and where we always use a plural verb.
  • A lot of people are very unhappy with the decision.
  • A couple of my friends are coming over later.
  • A few of these are worth saving.
The question, it seems to me, is whether range can act as a quantifier in a similar way, like a majority (of) and a number of.

Group nouns

In British English we can also use group nouns in the singular or plural, depending on whether we see the group as a single entity or as a group of individuals:
  • The government is/are introducing a new law.
  • Our team has/have been playing really well lately
  • A group of us is/are going to the theatre this evening.
But I wonder if, in that last case, group is not being used more like a qualifier.

Common collocations with range

You'll have noticed from those examples that range is often preceded by wide. Here are the most common adjective collocations, from a list at Just the Word (all links are at the end of this post). Numbers refer to how often they occur in the British National Corpus. As you can see, wide is by far the most common:
  • wide range - 3033
  • whole range - 652
  • full range - 416
  • broad range - 213
  • narrow range - 126
  • limited range - 121
  • large range - 116
  • extensive range - 86
  • complete range - 84
While the lists of example sentences from the BNC include several with range of people, only three from wide range and one from narrow range appear to fall into the category of our target sentence, and they all use the verb in the plural.
  • where a wide range of people from a broad range of cultures are cared for daily
  • A wide range of people were interviewed
  • A wide range of people throughout much of the country - from the local gentry, through to the professional and mercantile classes, down to the middling and lower sorts of town and countryside - were actively caught up in the partisan controversies of the time.
  • A fairly narrow range of people are responsible for key decisions

Collocations with 'a wide range of'

I then checked with Netspeak, to see what the most common collocations with a wide range of are:
  • A wide range of decors
  • A wide range of products
  • A wide range of services
  • A wide range of topics
  • A wide range of applications
  • A wide range of issues
  • A wide range of activities
  • A wide range of subjects
Later on, we'll see how often Google find these expressions with both singular and plural verbs.

Ngram

It's difficult to get a very accurate picture from Ngram as we are linited to five word expressions, which rules out a wide range of people is and a wide range of people are. But these Ngram graphs do seem to suggest that when we are talking about things, either singular is preferred or singular and plural are used equally. When it comes to to people, however, a plural verb seems to be increasingly more common.

Search limitations

When trying to compare results from sources like Ngram, Google Books and Google Search, there is the problem that the results will also throw up examples where a wide range of ... is not the subject, and where the verb has a different subject (underlined) :
  • The problems connected with catering for such a wide range of people are considerable.
  • Catering for a wide range of people is their speciality.
We need to take this into consideration when looking at results.

Google Books

"A wide range of people are"

According to Google there were 13,300 hits. I just looked at those on the first page:
  • It implies that a wide range of people are potential suicide bombers
  • The fact that such a wide range of people are called shamans suggests at least two significant things
  • ... so that a wide range of people are available to help prevent and tackle bullying
  • Low participation rates in the referendum on EU accession in 2003 showed that a wide range of people are not convinced about the advantages of accession
  • Because a wide range of people are grouped together in urban areas, ...
  • Accordingly, a wide range of people are inescapably involved.>
  • thus, a wide range of people are free ...
We need to discount two, where the verbs have have different subjects (underlined)
  • The problems of teaching a group containing such a wide range of people are considerable
  • These views and opinions from a wide range of people are valuable

"A wide range of people is"

On the on the first page it said there were 3,410 hits, but this rapidly reduced as I went through the pages (to about 50). In only two of those on the first two pages does the verb relate to the range of people:
  • Thus, a wide range of people is invited to participate in the process
  • A wide range of people is interested in wildlife photography
All the rest have different subjects, for example:
  • Enrolling a wide range of people is consistent with assuming homogeneity of effect
  • One of the key techniques of ensuring usability for a wide range of people is to provide a wide range of offerings
  • Concern with learning to get along with a wide range of people is most central for students

Google Search

I then tried various expressions on Google Search. These will of course vary day to day. It is not a foolproof method for the reasons given above, but it can give us a broad picture.
singularplural
a wide range
a wide range is/are 85,300,00065,400,000
there is/are a wide range of925,000,000533,000,000
a wide range of XXX is/are
a wide range of services is/are9,440,00020,600,000
a wide range of products is/are2,720,00016,200,000
a wide range of issues is/are4,970,00063,400,000
a wide range of activities is/are5,420,0008,900,000
a wide range of subjects is/are294,0001,920,000
a wide range of opportunities is/are310,0001,290,000
a wide range of options is/are7,480,0001,620,000
a wide range of topics was/were571,0004,500,000
A wide range of people
a wide range of people is/are820,00016,300,000
a wide range of people was/were1,040,0006,880,000
a wide range of people has/have843,0002,040,000
a wide range of people has/have been749,0009,330,000
Other group words
has/have been a series of5,500,0005,340,000
a series of questions was/were530,0001,960,000
a group of us is/are1,340,0002,490,000
a majority
a majority is/are12,600,0006,770,000
a majority of them is/are20,600,0005,120,000
a majority of people is/are34,000,00010,700,000
a number of
a number of points is/are2,950,0007,450,000
a number of questions is/are3,240,0004,050,000
a number of people is/are38,900,000184,000,000
people
an assortment of people was/were66,000284,000
a group of people has/have34,600,00085,200,000
a group of people was/were3,510,00032,600,000

The media

Unfortunately, examples of wide range of people are extremely rare in the media; I've only been able to find three in the mainstream British media, two with a plural verb, and one with a singular one. These are far too few to make any judgements, but it is interesting that the two plural examples are from non-journalists, and the only example in the singular is from a journalist. Are journalists more pernickety about these things, I wonder.
  • When such a wide range of people are singing a tune perhaps discordant to a City worker's ears but seemingly in tune with the global view that the market economy has failed to deliver growth, jobs and hope, we need to listen (Banker Ken Costa writing in the Financial Times, and requoted in the Guardian)
  • We are delighted that such a wide range of people are supporting this exceptional year and thank them for their support. (The same person quoted in both the Independent and the Telegraph)
  • A wide range of people has visited the island, including rock star Annie Lennox (Independent)

Conclusions

A matter of focus

It seems to me that it is largely a matter of focus. When we want to stress the width of the range, we are more likely to use a singular verb, and when we use the, we always use a singular verb:
  • An incredibly wide range of options is available.
  • A more limited range of services is provided at the School of Social Work.
  • The range of features is very impressive.
Much of the time, though, singular and plural both seem possible, depending whether we are focusing on the range or the things:
  • A wide range of activities is/are offered.

And what about people?

But when it comes to people, on Ngram, in Google Books and on the Internet in general, it seems that a wide range of people and other similar expressions with people take a plural verb much more commonly than a singular verb. And this seems to be true even when we are concentrating on the size of the range:
  • A fairly narrow range of people are responsible for key decisions
Theoretically, no doubt, both singular and plural verbs are "correct", but I have to say that a plural verb after people sounds much more natural to me. That example from the Independent - A wide range of people has visited the island - may be correct, but sounds nearly as strange as the original sentence about a wide range of furious activists.

And finally - a furious range?

The other strange thing about that original sentence is that it seems to be attributing a human emotion to a range. If, for example, in the sentence 'A wide range of activities is offered', we remove 'of activities', leaving 'A wide range is offered', this makes some sense, we can offer a range. The same can be said about 'a wide range of people is represented' - 'a wide range is represented' also seems to make some sense. But if we remove 'of people' from the sentence 'a wide range of people is furious' we get 'a wide range is furious', which sounds distinctly odd. Can a range really be furious?

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