A number of people doesn’t understand notional agreement

I can only imagine the frantic correspondence that led to this correction being printed in yesterday’s Sunday Times:

Because of an editing error in “Head exposes sloppy errors by teachers” (News, last week), Richard Cairns of Brighton College was misquoted as saying “there are a large number of teachers”. He had actually used the grammatically correct “is”.

The change to the quote may be correct, but the reason given to justify it isn’t. The originally published version is perfectly grammatical, while “there is a large number of teachers” is a stilted and clumsy hypercorrection.

This is all about synesis, or notional agreement between subject and verb – as opposed to formal agreement.

Formal agreement means that a verb is singular or plural according to the grammatical form of its subject. Notional agreement means that a verb is singular or plural according to whether its subject is understood as being one thing or many. Compare these examples:

  • The jury was selected yesterday. (Treating the jury as a single whole.)
  • The jury were shaking their heads in disbelief. (Treating the jury as 12 individuals.)
  • Cheese and pickle are good in a sandwich. (Treating cheese and pickle as distinct ingredients.)
  • Cheese and pickle is my favourite sandwich. (Treating cheese and pickle as a single type of sandwich.)

Sometimes, the choice can reasonably go either way, but sometimes not. You can try switching the above examples, to produce varying degrees of awkwardness.

Let’s turn to the question of Mr Cairns, which is a special case. Here’s the supposedly ungrammatical quote in full, as published the previous week:

Cairns said he thought there was a “lost generation” of teachers between the ages of 25 and 40. They had also been educated in state schools where they had never been taught basic grammar, sentence construction or spelling. “This shows me that there are a large number of teachers in state schools I would never employ because I do not think their knowledge is sufficient.”

“Number” is grammatically singular. But it’s a long-established convention that, while “the number of things” takes the singular (because you’re talking about the number), “a number of things” takes the plural (because you’re talking about the things). Ernest Gowers, in his 1965 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, puts it well:

When the word number is itself the subject it is a safe rule to treat it as singular when it has a definite article and as plural when it has an indefinite. The number of people present was large, but A large number of people were present. In Before the conclave begins in a fortnight’s time a number of details has to be settled the singular is clearly wrong; it is the details that have to be settled not the number; a number of details is a composite subject equivalent to numerous details.

Pam Peters, in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, gives a more technical explanation:

In grammatical terms the difference is that number is the head of the subject phrase in the first sentence [The number of applications is small], but a premodifying element in the second [A number of applications are still to come].

This all applies to “there [is/are] a large number of teachers”: as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, “even when the sentence begins with there, a number of commands the plural verb”.

So that’s that: the correction was incorrect. This looks like a double case of Muphry’s law.

Merriam-Webster’s also reports, perhaps optimistically, that “all commentators agree” on this point. But if it isn’t unanimous, it’s not far off, as the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows. “There are a number of” vastly outnumbers “there is a number of”, going back over two centuries:

a number of

Likewise, “a number of things are” is hugely dominant over “a number of things is”.

As for the dissidents, like Mr Cairns, Garner’s Modern American Usage scornfully remarks: “Some pedants think that correctness dictates a number of people is.” I share the sentiment but I wouldn’t put it that way. Insisting on formal agreement in all circumstances is not pedantry; it is ignorance.

To be a pedant you at least have to be right.

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