Sunday, November 16, 2008

Getting the Number Right

I just came across this in a news report: "A number of homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed."

It's incorrect. Verbs have to agree in number with the subject of the sentence, which in this case is "A number". The subject is not "homes and businesses"; rather, the phrase "of homes and businesses" modifies the subject, "A number." This sentence should therefore read, "A number of homes and buildings WAS damaged or destroyed." Numbers were, but a number was. The correct version, as sometimes happens, does sound wrong, so I always try to get around that awkwardness by saying, "Numerous homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed." Or else you could make everything plural: "Numbers of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed."

Here are some other examples of correctly matching the subject and the verb of a sentence as to number.

An entire collection of valuable stamps was missing.
A collection was, not were.

A huge quantity of figs and dates was loaded onto the camel.
A quantity was.

The museum’s exhibit of paintings and sculptures was vandalized.
The exhibit was.

Note: in the United Kingdom, certain collective nouns do take plural verbs, as in, "The family were not at home." In The United States, we say, "The family was not at home." I don't know for sure what other such nouns take the plural in British usage. (But I'm sure Elizabeth will be able to give us some examples if she reads this.)


Elizabeth said...

The English language is truly baffling on occasion to my children.

Today I explained to my DD age 10 that a series was a *collection* of items/episodes etc and was a collective noun that generally operated with the third-person singular verb "was" unless you were specifically talking of "all 14 series of ER", when you would use the third person plural "were"
And no, there was not a plural noun called "serieses" :-)