“A Number” or “The Number”?

I hope you’re up for another round of challenging the rules of English!

LinkedIn (a social media platform for professionals) hosts many discussion groups about a variety of topics. Recently someone raised a provocative grammar question:  should we say “a large number of researchers is active” or “a large number of researchers are active”?

How would you answer that question?

More than 50 writing professionals embarked on a lively discussion. Some argued for “is,” on the grounds that “a large number” is singular. Others argued for “are,” reasoning that “researchers” is plural.

Everybody was wrong.

I – ahem – answered the question correctly. A few people agreed with  me – but most ignored my comments and went back to arguing about prepositional phrases and singular and plural verbs.

So…I ask you…how would you answer today’s question? And (to add to the fun) would your answer be the same if you changed “a number of researchers” to “the number of researchers”?

And while we’re at it…how can I be so sure I’m right and almost everyone else was wrong?

*  *  *  *  * 

 Here are two principles for writers to live by:

  1. Usage – not grammar – is the key to writing correct English. Language is a social tool. People (not grammarians) make the rules.
  2. If you’re a native English speaker, you’ve been unconsciously absorbing English usage since you were a tot. Whenever you’re up against a rule, run it past your language experience and common sense.

Let’s look at some sentence pairs. Choose the one that sounds best to you.

1:

A large number of people is going to the show.

The large number of people is going to surprise the planners.

2.

A large number of people are going to the show.

The large number of people is going to surprise the planners.

3.

A large number of people are going to the show.

The large number of people are going to surprise the planners.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

Which sentence pair did you choose – #1, #2, or #3?

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

I’m delaying my answer to make it harder for you to cheat by looking for the answer before you’ve thought about it. OK – here it comes: #2 is correct!

The usual rules of grammar don’t apply to “a number” and “the number.” The rule is that “a number” is plural and “the number” is singular.

Chances are #2 sounded best to you when you read the sentences – but then you started to doubt yourself. What about that prepositional phrase – “of people” – aren’t you supposed to skip over that? (Yes.) And “a number” and “the number” are both singular. You couldn’t possibly make one singular and one plural, could you? (Right again.)

Except that the rules don’t apply in those case. Common sense and experience will point you to the right answer.

But how can I be so sure? By playing my trump card. I went to my bookcase and pulled down Fowler’s Modern English Usage – the absolute authority on correct English. (If you don’t have a copy, your library has one. You can even call the reference librarian and save yourself a trip.)

According to Fowler, “a number” is plural, and “the number” is singular. Case closed!

When I posted my answer (the correct answer) on LinkedIn, I added a comment about the silliness of trying to reason your way to an answer about a sticky usage question. Check an authority!

Forty-seven people ignored that sensible (and professional) advice. Sigh. 

Fowler's Modern English Usage

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