Monday, March 21, 2011

There was / were a huge number

I was preparing a grammar exercise from a book, and I came across the sentence "there were a huge number of mosquitoes." The sentence was not actually testing the number of the verb, but I stumbled over it, as I would spontaneously say "there was a huge number of mosquitoes." But I also noticed that I would say "a huge number of mosquitoes were there."

So I spent a few minutes digging around in grammar books and found several confirmations of the latter point ("number of" + plural verb) but no discussion of the number of the verb in such a construction with "there." So there's always a nice Google test:

"there were a huge number of" = 381k hits
"there was a huge number of" = 15.5m hits

You can't always count on Google to do your linguistic research for you, but this one seems pretty clear! Over 40:1 in favor of the singular "was" here, even though the reverse is true without "there" (though only just under 9:1):

"a huge number of people were" = 1.36m hits
"a huge number of people was" = 156k hits

Take out "huge" and the ratio is over 100:1 in favor "there was a number of", but about 20:1 in favor of "a number of people were."

So the descriptive conclusion is that in contemporary English, "number of" usually takes a plural verb, but "there X a number of" usually has a singular verb.

(Just trying my hand at a little linguistics.)


Rosie said...

You seem to be assuming that the majority cannot be wrong ... but they can.

Would you say "There was a lot of people"? ... I doubt it.

So would you say "There was a number of people"? ... No?

So then why would you say "There was a huge number of people"? It's not correct, even if a huge number of people does it ;-)

Andrew Shields said...

I would put it differently: if the majority says one thing, and a minority says another, then, at least as far as that particular point is concerned, the majority is speaking one variety of a language, and the minority is speaking a second variety of that language.

That is, there is not one variety of English that is correct, and everything that goes counter to it is incorrect. There are many different variations within and between varieties.

With most varieties, you can tell that it's still English, because the majority of the patterns of English hold true.

One recent post I found fascinating: