What’s Your Number?

by sue on September 8, 2010

I love it when I have to look up a point of grammar. It’s a chance to verify what I know about our language – or be smacked by something I didn’t know. I was recently called upon to “rule” on an issue being debated at a client’s office. It involved a troublesome number.

The question was this: Is it correct to say, “a number of [whatevers] have started?” Or should it be “has started?” Folks sensed the first was correct but the more everyone thought about it the less sure they became. Their minds filled with rules about collective nouns and whatnot.

I went to my trusty copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage for an entertaining romp through the grammar rules. The distinction, it appears, is between Anumber andTHEnumber. Is it the number that’s important or the [whatevers].

“The noun phrase, a number of + plural noun normally takes a plural verb in both British and American English,” Fowler writes. “The plural noun is regarded as the ‘head’ of the noun phrase and, therefore, the real subject.” He gives the example, “A number of books by ballerinas have been published lately,” and continues, “By contrast, the expression the number of + plural noun, in which the head of the phrase is the number and not the noun, takes a singular verb.” So, if we stick with the example of dancing authors, the number of ballerinas writing books has increased.

Fowler’s one of my heroes. His no nonsense approach to grammar can serve us all well. Of course my no nonsense approach is useful, too. It’s called avoidance. It’s a whole lot easier – and clearer, because it’s in the active voice – to avoid the issue by simply writing, Many ballerinas are writing books.

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