A Number, a Multitude, a Host . . . Are

This morning before my second cup of caffeine, I stumbled over a subject-verb agreement issue in instructions I was writing. Here is the sentence:

If there is an odd number of participants, pair up with one of them.

If there is an odd number? If there are an odd number?

Although my brain felt fuzzy, I could go back to the rule I know well:

A number are. ("A number" takes a plural verb.)
The number is. ("The number" takes a singular verb.)

Examples:

A number of people are waiting in the conference room.
The number of people waiting is more than I realized.

A number of employees have taken the writing class.
The number of employees has increased this month.

Since "a number" are, "an odd number" are. For my subject and verb to agree, my example must be written this way:

If there are an odd number of participants, pair up with one of them.

MG wrote last week to ask me about subject-verb agreement with "a myriad." Just like "a number," "a myriad" takes a plural verb because it means "a vast number."

Examples:

A myriad of people are contributing to the campaign.
A multitude of reasons are being given for the downturn.
A host of factors are affecting sales.

A number, a host, a multitude–all take a plural verb in examples like the ones above. (Of course, you can come up with exceptions such as "A number is hard to read," meaning "one number," or "A host is someone who entertains guests." Because of these exceptions, you cannot rely on Microsoft Office to choose your verb for you.)

Please note: A large number of questions are arriving in my email inbox daily. I am not able to respond to them and earn a living. I apologize for my inability to respond to everyone's inquiries.

Lynn
Syntax Training

4 COMMENTS

  1. Try not to think of the rule according to whether ‘A’ or ‘The’ precedes ‘number.’ The verb following “A number of people…” will be plural because we’re referring to all of the 20 or 30 people waiting in the room, which obviously denotes plurality. But the verb following “The number of people…” is singular because we’re not referring to the people themselves, just that actual number of units from 0 (here, 20 or 30) represented by the word ‘number.’ It’s singular here for the same reason that in “A number is hard to read,” the verb is singular, since we’re referring to some individual mathematical value.

  2. I am all for whatever works. That’s why I stick with “a number are,” which is simple and easy to remember. Thanks for commenting, Avery.

  3. It might work for you, but it isn’t correct. An “even number” is a type of number (a definite noun), and so is an “odd number.”
    The sentence “There is an odd number of participants…” looks like, but is not the same as and means something different than a sentence using the indefinite adjective phrase “a number of” (e.g., “A number of people are there”).

    You can see how the definite (compound) noun would take a definite article if the sentence were rearranged slightly:
    For example: “Is the number of people there odd or even?” or “Is there an odd number of people here, or is there an even number of people here?”

    “There is an odd number of participants” may sound awkward, but it isn’t incorrect.

  4. Thank you for dropping by and sharing, Jill. I appreciate your detailed comment.

    In “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” one of my favorite guides, Garner writes:

    “. . . when an adjective precedes ‘number’ [as in] ‘a significant number’ . . . some writers make the verb singular. [Garner provides two examples.]

    “But these writers are strongly outnumbered by those who, even with the qualifying adjective, see the idiom as being ‘a number of,’ necessitating a plural verb. Linguistic authorities have a long tradition of preferring the plural here.” [He gives nine examples.]

    In a later paragraph Garner concludes, “Better to stick with the plural.”

    Garner did not include an example with “an odd number” or “an even number.” Still, I find his argument compelling. What do you think of Garner’s view?

    Lynn

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