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A colleague of mine corrected the following sentence in a text I had written:

A handful of iterations was generally enough for convergence.

According to her it should be:

A handful of iterations were generally enough for convergence.

I am, however, confident that my original usage was correct, but I am unsure how I should motivate this.

EDIT: What made me think it was singular was not "a handful of". I thought it would be correct to say Five iterations is enough. because it is a statement about the number of iterations rather than the iterations themselves. When googling to find an answer I found a television series called Eight Is Enough. Is that correct because the noun is left out? Compare the sentences: Three friends are ideal. and Three friends is ideal. I would have thought that the first sentence means that there are three persons who are ideal friends, while the second sentence means that three is the ideal number of friends to have. But maybe my intuition is really off here.

EDIT2: Here it is stated that:

*Subjects expressing periods of time, amounts of money, or quantities may take either singular or plural verbs depending on whether represent a total amount or a number of individual units. For example, "Four weeks is not enough vacation time" and "Two days have passed since I asked for your response."

Isn't the first example here quite similar to mine?

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This is actually the same question as questions like english.stackexchange.com/q/69650. –  tchrist Apr 22 '13 at 18:34
    
The question has been updated to clarify what I was really wondering about. Could someone comment on the thoughts in my updated question? –  jkej Apr 22 '13 at 20:24
    
With your clarifications this has become an interesting question. The concept of an (individual) iteration is what makes this sentence feel different. The word iteration conveys a very singular feeling, even when pluralized. I still have to give the "correct" marker to your colleague, though I can see traces of a valid argument in your favor. –  dotsamuelswan Apr 22 '13 at 21:48
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Your friend's edit was incorrect. Both versions of that sentence are grammatical, but your friend's edit made it mean something nonsensical. "A handful of iterations were generally enough" refers to a specific (handful-sized) set of iterations, and says that these iterations were generally enough. This makes no sense. On the other hand, your wording "A handful of iterations was generally enough" means exactly what you want it to. –  Ben Lee Apr 28 '13 at 23:29

4 Answers 4

In this case, the correct grammar is

A handful of iterations was generally enough for convergence.

This is because it is not true that each iteration was enough for convergence. You need the whole handful to obtain convergence. Thus, the verb was must agree with the noun handful.

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Yes. The sentence "a handful of iterations were good enough" also makes sense, but it says something else. It says "I tried a great many iterations, but out of that number, only a handful were (individually) good enough." –  Greg Hullender Sep 1 '13 at 15:22

Edit 2

After your edit, the question becomes one of whether a group of things can be taken as a collective singular, such as in this question, which asks such things as whether a dozen somethings “is” enough.

The answer is that it can be singular if you are thinking of it as one thing as a whole, just as in:

Twelve miles is much too far for me to walk before lunch.

In that sort of sentence, you get agreement like this:

  • A few more games is all I have time for.
  • A handful of games is all I have time for.
  • A few more miles is all I have time for.
  • A handful of miles is all I have time for.

It really just depends on what you’re trying to say, and how you’re trying to say it. If you want to say that five matches is more than you can handle or that three olives is too many for a martini, then yes, sure you can.

But normally plural things take plural agreement — see the ngram below, which shows that a handful of men will usually take plural agreement because men is plural, no matter the status of the a handful of premodifer.

It is only when you logically group them as one thing that they take singular agreement. By doing so, that is what you are conveying.

But perhaps your friend does not like it when the council is decided on something, as opposed to when they are divided. :)


Original Answer

Your friend is right, and you are wrong.

When you have a premodifier like a lot of, a number of, or a handful of preceding the head noun, the verb continues to agree with that head noun, instead of with the notionally singular a lot, a number, a handful, which functions more like a red herring than anything else.

Ok, seriously, these premodifiers are really acting like adjectives, not like prepositional phrases. That means the head noun remains the head noun, and there is no change to agreement:

  • People think the same way.
  • Several people think the same way.
  • Few people think the same way.
  • No people think the same way.
  • Many people think the same way.
  • A lot of people think the same way.
  • A number of people think the same way.
  • A handful of people think the same way.

As opposed to something like:

  • If just one out of all those people thinks the same way as you do, you win.

Edit

Although there is a bit of room for variation here, depending on just what the writer is thinking, there is a clear dominance of the plural continuing to be used after a handful of men in this Google N-Gram chart:

handful chart

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Yes - I'd add that there can be one or two complications. We would say a handful of rice was on the table (mass noun). We would say a box of chocolates was on the table (container + contents counted as single entity). And in the UK, we would say The team were all able to reach double figures when batting but The team was founded in 1911 (logical concord). Also, The majority were out before they reached 30. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 22 '13 at 18:33
    
@EdwinAshworth A box of is not a premodifier here. I did not say that a handful of makes something plural; it does not. It works like an adjective in that it does not modify the number of its modificand. So if the rice is already on the table, adding a handful does not change the number, since rice as a mass noun was already singular. A lot of rice is grown in China; out of all the different rices of the world, only a handful are grown in America. Notice again how the premodifiers do not affect grammatical number, which continues to be determined by the head noun even when absent. –  tchrist Apr 22 '13 at 18:37
    
@tchrist Thank you for your quick reply! I didn't really think that it was "a handful of"-part that made it singular. It was rather that it is a statement about the number of iterations, not about the iterations themselves. –  jkej Apr 22 '13 at 18:47
    
@tchrist I think that your change of title was unfortunate beacuse it was not really "a handful of" that I was wondering about. –  jkej Apr 22 '13 at 18:55
    
@jkel Then please, by all means change your title back to whatever you think makes sense. The problem is that “Is it was or were?” tells no one anything at all, whereas the version I changed it to is something that can be searched on. –  tchrist Apr 22 '13 at 19:05

That one is actually really tricky.

If you used a numbering word, it would be clear:

  • one iteration is enough
  • two iterations are enough
  • two or three iterations are enough
  • several iterations are enough
  • a very small number of iterations are enough (so singular words or "of" aren't the issue)
  • a pair of iterations are

If the thing before the of was a singular physical container, it would be clear:

  • a jar of jelly beans is
  • a six-ounce jar of jelly beans is
  • six ounces of jelly beans are
  • two jars of jelly beans are

The weird thing here is that the exact same phrase requires a different verb if it's metaphorical (because then it's mapping to a small number) than if it's literal:

  • a handful of iterations are
  • a handful of votes are
  • a handful of jelly beans is

As long as that last handful is literally that: a hand, full of jellybeans. Then it's like the jar or box.

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Yes - you look at the different possibilities (quantifier or container + contents, and literal or metaphorical usage) and see the complications. Good answer. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 22 '13 at 19:36
    
@Kate_Gregory Thank you for your answer, but as reflected in my recent update, it was not really the "a handful of"-part that confused me. –  jkej Apr 22 '13 at 19:40
    
@jkej I'd say it is - Subjects expressing periods of time, amounts of money, or quantities may take either singular or plural verbs depending on whether [they] represent a total amount or a number of individual units. Is a handful of iterations intended to represent a grouping or individual entities? The iterations would by definition be a sequence, so there is an obvious grouping. However, I would prefer a rephrasing: A sequence of 4-7 iterations generally gave an accurate enough answer. / Convergence was in general adequately demonstrated by a sequence of just 4-7 iterations. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 22 '13 at 22:13

The verb always agrees with the subject. In this case the subject is "a handful" and the prepositional phrase is "of iterations." A handful is singular because although it is talking about many things, it is referring to them as one—as a whole. So, the answer is: "A handful of iterations was generally enough for convergence."

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That is not true. There are various categories of constructions where the verb does not agree with its subject. This is one of them. If you remove the handful, the verb remains singular: “Five iterations is generally enough”. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 6 '13 at 1:16

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