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A simple question that has sparked some debate, and I couldn't find a concrete answer anywhere. There seems to be two camps: The word plethora indicates plural, so therefore it should be "There are a plethora"; and the other camp says that there is only one plethora (which contains multiple), so it should be "There is a plethora".

I've seen many examples of both. Is there a consensus, or is it just one of those things that can go either way?

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Would you say that I have a plethora of piñatas? –  MT_Head Feb 6 '13 at 4:55
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Related: same question for a variety of, a number of, a lot of, a total of, a wide range of. –  RegDwigнt Feb 6 '13 at 10:48
    
I'm closevoting against the first of those, @Reg. Not because I think the question itself is any more relevant than the others you listed, nor because you happen to have answered that one. I just like it best because the downvotes for the "strictly logical" answers makes it clear that most of us here don't endorse that absurdly prescriptivist position. –  FumbleFingers Feb 6 '13 at 17:22
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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, MετάEd, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, tchrist, JSBձոգչ Feb 6 '13 at 23:21

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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

This look at the matter of the grammatical plurality of single groups of plural items is well worth reading in full.

To summarise:

  1. Some do hold it must always be singular.
  2. Both can be found, from the middle of the 18th Century on.
  3. The plural is the more commonly used, has been for some time, and its relative popularity is growing.
  4. Respected writers who use the plural include Charles Batteux, William Hazlitt, John Keats, William Makepeace Thakeray and Mark Twain. (John Keats' was once considered a grammatical rebel for such things as the double be in "...how diligent I have been, & am being", but I doubt many would even notice why that was considered bad grammar by some in the nineteenth century. Mark Twain made heavy use of non-standard forms, but that was a conscious use and he was not doing so in the example).

I'll also note that John Cowan (who often remembers such things) is quoted thus:

J.R.R. Tolkien once received a letter (addressed to "any Professor of English Language") asking him about the rectitude of "A large number of walls is/are being built", and saying that "big money" was riding on the issue. He answered, of course, that you can say what you like. His original reply is not in print AFAIK, but a letter to someone else referencing it is in The Letters of JRRT.

My own opinion, is that the singular is easily understood as attaching to the noun that describes the group, just as the plural is easily understood as attaching to the individual members of the group. Neither clash horribly for most readers, though some do hold strong opinions.

My own use doesn't even side firmly with one or the other (my preferences here are given not as prescriptive decrees, but using myself as an example to demonstrate that usage may not even be firmly on one side or the other with a given individual).

If a phrase clearly refers to the individuals, I would strongly favour the plural:

The group of protesters were holding placards.

Some clearly to the group:

The group of protesters was twice the size as an hour ago.

Many could be interpreted either way:

The group of protesters was/were blocking the entrance.

In which I am likely to just mentally place in one of the first two categories, and write accordingly. Note that even with the first two, my strongly favouring one or the other does not mean I find other choices to be incorrect in others' writing.

From what I say above, you might expect that I would always favour the singular if the individuals aren't mentioned (even if I wouldn't "correct" another for doing otherwise):

There was a plethora.

The plethora of piñatas was/were gaily coloured.

But a group almost always at least suggests its members, and this question deals with one example of that, but there are others.

There are technical contexts where I would much more strongly suggest that expressions specific to the group or to the individuals be distinguished: The distinction between sets and their items in mathematics, or between collections and their contents in object oriented computer programming. Even here, I wouldn't so much say that a given form was wrong, just that there is a heavy benefit for precision and often you are working to help readers understand that very distinction, so an extra bit of prissiness may pay off.

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Shouldn’t that be “the plural is the more commonly used”? Was there a third possibility? :) –  tchrist Feb 6 '13 at 11:44
    
I'm not sure baldly stating “the plural is the more commonly used” really helps much, unless it's in the context of pointing out that increasingly, writers (including competent writers) are prepared to ignore pettifogging prescriptivist grammarians telling them anything like a group, bunch, plethora must be singular. It simply depends on whether you want to think of it it as a single entity, or a multiplicity of whatever it's made up of. –  FumbleFingers Feb 6 '13 at 17:16
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A plethora is singular, so one must say "there is a plethora of..." just as one would say "there is a bunch..."

If you are dealing in several plethoras, you could use the plural: "there are plethoras of..." but this feels very contrived and artificial.

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-1 - "there are a whole bunch" of reasons why I disagree with this answer. That's 20,000 of them in Google Books, and I bet I could think of a few more. –  FumbleFingers Feb 6 '13 at 5:22
    
There is a whole bunch of people not "there are". There is a whole box of cigarettes, not "there are". –  Blessed Geek Feb 6 '13 at 5:32
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I think this may be the first time @FumbleFingers has been called an iPhone/Android-texting kid who is ruining our sense of grammar! –  Hugo Feb 6 '13 at 6:56
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@Blessed: Not the "whole" story, but there are a bunch more reasons here (that's 246,000 of them), plus "here are a bunch" of 14,700 more. I think it's a mistake to conflate "grammar" and "logic". And you seem to imply that English was more logical in the past than it is now (having been messed up by ignorant/careless kids). That ain't gonna fly either, I don't think (pick the bones out of this sentence! :) –  FumbleFingers Feb 6 '13 at 17:05
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Actually, now that I re-read this in the light of day, I don't disagree with FumbleFingers (+1). I'm not deleting my answer because the train of discussion is interesting (and entertaining). I do think there is one whole, even if it is a whole bunch, so it doesn't provide a useful counterexample. –  James McLeod Feb 6 '13 at 18:57
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There IS A whole bunch of reasons why you need to pay attention to encapsulation and collectives.

  • There is a {ton of bananas} in the truck.
  • There is a {whole ton of bananas} in the truck.
  • There is a {bag of cloves} that I bought.
  • There is a {box of cigarettes}.
  • This is a {list of people} I am inviting.
  • There is a {collection of artwork of various genres} in the warehouse.
  • It is three days' {work} to finish painting the house.

We have to look at he complex noun phrase as a whole. This is the super noun encapsulation. If there is only one collection, then there is only one collection. Regardless if there are many members in that singular collection.

There is {singular complex noun}.
There are {plural complex noun}.

The following is a plural noun phrase encapsulated by a singular noun phrase:

There IS my {having to deal with two hundred people who ARE attending the party} that IS giving me a headache.

If we address the singular collection, we have to look at that collection as the singularised entity. If we wish to address the items (of the singular collective) in plural, we have to get rid of the collective encapsulation:

  • There is a whole lot of people feeling depressed about the Patriots' failure to reach the Super Bowl.
  • There is a lot of people feeling depressed about the Patriots' failure to reach the Super Bowl.
  • There are lots of people feeling depressed about the Patriots' failure to reach the Super Bowl.
  • There are many people feeling depressed about the Patriots' failure to reach the Super Bowl.

Contractor: How many boxes of framing nails did you buy?
Peon: I bought only one box.
Angry Contractor: Do you mean to say there IS only ONE box of framing nails?
Unrepentant Peon: There are plenty nails in a box
Angry Contractor: There is also one whole load of studs to frame. There are another two loads coming in.

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"... up with which I will not put." There is a place for prescriptive grammar advice: let people know what is, in fact, usual and normal for people to say in a particular social context. But it is not necessary or possible to impose a fixed rule or insist that the language operate according to what seems logical. –  MετάEd Feb 6 '13 at 7:33
    
If I were still in Quality Engineering as I was 25 years ago, I would disqualify any manuals/specs not written to such logical and precise convention. –  Blessed Geek Feb 6 '13 at 18:00
    
EL&U is not an editorial committee. It is a community of expert (and enthusiastic amateur) linguists and etymologists with particular expertise in the English language. As such you will tend to see EL&U approach questions descriptively, not prescriptively. In other words, an editor or grammarian may tell you what s/he thinks is "proper" or "correct". But a linguist will tell you what the language actually is rather than what it should be. –  MετάEd Feb 6 '13 at 19:17
    
So, this person is asking what is the proper way .. And so shall I say, well, in Indonesia or Japan it is acceptable to speak in English such as "That is my pants"? How is acceptability of Indonesian or Japanese English different from some ancient illogical author from England? –  Blessed Geek Feb 10 '13 at 7:59
    
If in Indonesia that's predominantly how they express it, then it's correct in Indonesia. Or if in Indonesia they only predominantly use that expression when speaking informally, then it's correct in Indonesia only in informal speech, etc. –  MετάEd Feb 10 '13 at 8:12
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