a/the number of Ns

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sat Dec 31 16:06:16 UTC 2005

On Dec 30, 2005, at 9:53 PM, Wilson Gray wrote:

> ... BTW, did you ever have to learn a prescriptive rule that stated
> that
> forms like "the number of, the assortment of" requiire a singular
> verb, whereas forms like "a number of, an assortment of" require a
> plural verb? I learned it so well that I no longer have any intuitions
> about such forms. I routinely and consciously apply the rule, which I
> learned in high school.

check out the first subentry in MWDEU's entry for "number", which
discusses the rule for the noun "number" only, citing Bernstein's
(1977) rule.  using invented examples:
   (1) The number of penguins on the porch is/*are huge.
   (2) A number of penguins are/*is on the porch.

once you consider pairs like this, you see that this isn't some
arbitrary rule, but rather just a reflection of the semantics and
syntax of these constructions.  in (1), what's huge is the number (of
penguins), not the penguins; "number" is the head N of the subject
NP, with a partitive complement "of penguins" following it.  in (2),
what's on the porch is penguins, not a number; "penguins" is the head
N of the subject NP, with a quantity determiner "a number of"
preceding it.

MWDEU points out that with modifiers like "increasing" or "growing",
both usages are possible (and attested) for the indefinite:
   (3) An ever-growing number of films is/are available on-line.
(which is to say that NPs like "an ever-growing number of films" can
have either structure, and interpretation; it's ambiguous).

"assortment" is a slightly different kettle of fish, covered in MWDEU
under the heading "agreement, subject-verb: a bunch of the boys".
here N1 in "Art N1 of N2s" is a collective noun, and in principle
either structure, and interpretation, is possible, so that either
verb agreement is possible as well.  in some cases the meanings are
clearly differentiated:  if N1 is understood as conveying quantity,
then it's part of a determiner, and the verb is plural, to agree with
   (4) A bunch of flowers were/*was planted haphazardly all over the
if your intention is to focus on the collectivity as a whole, then N1
is the head, and the verb is singular, to agree with it:
   (5) A bunch of flowers is/*are a nice birthday present.

   (6) The bunch of boys on the porch were/??was aggressive.
   (7) The bunch of boys on the porch was/*were enormous.

   (8) A bunch of flowers is/are in the vase.
("is" for the interpretation 'an arrangement of flowers', "are" for
the interpretation 'a lot of flowers'.)

arnold (zwicky at csli.stanford.edu)

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