Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A small number of quantifiers are a bit confusing, perhaps.

Doing some research for a post I want to do on linking verbs, I came across this sentence:
There is a small number of other copular verbs
which just happened to be on an English university grammar course website, which is a bit ironic.
Now I was pretty sure I'd say 'There are a small number', even though it doesn't seem at first sight to be grammatically correct – we have that 'a', after all. So I started checking on the web.
The first thing I found was in Yahoo Answers (a discussion board), where the answer was unanimous - a number is singular, so the verb must be singular – it's all so simple, isn't it? But I wasn't convinced, so I tried Google Ngram, my favourite internet toy tool, and this was the result (green and blue are for are, red and yellow for is – you can click on it to enlarge)
That looked more like what I was expecting, so I did what I (and those people on Yahoo) should have done in the first place, and checked a dictionary. Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary has a very useful note:
A plural verb is needed after 'a/an (large, small, etc.) number of…'
And on another website I found the comment that: "A number of" is just a fuzzy [not precise] quantifier, but he pointed out this difference (my examples):
  1. A number of incidents have happened in the last few weeks.
  2. The number of incidents has increased recently.
In the first sentence it's the incidents that have happened, so we need a plural verb. But in the second sentence it is the number that has increased, so we need a singular verb. And with the there is / are construction, we have:
  1. There have been a number of incidents in the last few weeks.
  2. There has been an increase in the number of incidents recently.
So usually, a number of is acting as a quantifier, and takes a plural verb, whereas the number of refers to the singular noun number,and so takes a singular verb. But be careful of phrases like this:
  • When truncating, a number of this order of magnitude is between ... (Wikipedia)
Here we are talking about the number, it is not acting as a quantifier, so we use singular. However, having just googled it, I can tell you that this sort of sentence is pretty rare.

Confusion reigns

If you try a Google search for "there is a small number" "there are a small number", you'll find that the two versions are occasionally used in the same article, with absolutely no difference in meaning - Google search - so it's obvious that a lot of people are confused.

Other similar quantifiers

In fact we use quite a few quantifiers with 'a' and a plural noun and/or plural pronoun, usually with a plural verb:
  • A number of people have complained that they were badly treated
  • A few of us are going to the cinema. Do you want to come?
  • He's written several books, and a couple of them are really good.
  • A lot of young people in that town are unemployed.
  • A small majority of members have voted in favour of the measure.

But note the informal there's a

In informal speech, we sometimes use there is before plural nouns:
  • There's a couple of things I don't understand.
  • There's an awful lot of people in the street.
  • There's a number of things we need to do.

And the moral of this tale – if you want grammatical advice, don't go to discussion boards