a/the number of Ns

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Sat Dec 31 22:16:38 UTC 2005

Thanks for the explication, arnold.


On 12/31/05, Arnold M. Zwicky <zwicky at csli.stanford.edu> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Arnold M. Zwicky" <zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: a/the number of Ns
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> 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
> N2s:
>    (4) A bunch of flowers were/*was planted haphazardly all over the
> garden.
> 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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