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Is "an assortment of [something plural]" singular or plural?

Removing the [something plural] makes the answer easier:

An assortment was here.

makes more sense than

An assortment were here.

Put in the [something plural], eg. "people", now I'm not sure which way sounds the most correct:

An assortment of people was here.

or

An assortment of people were here.

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See also: previous posts related to collective nouns and number agreement. –  Kris Nov 23 '13 at 12:21
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See previous posts on notional concord. A number of people were, a lot of people were, a total of ten people were, a variety of people were. Removing "of people" from these will make them all ungrammatical, too, but that's because, well, you just went and made them ungrammatical on purpose. Any sentence can become ungrammatical if you remove random words from it. Don't do that. –  RegDwigнt Nov 23 '13 at 14:00

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

US English is is more cut-and-dried on this topic. "An assortment of people was . . ." is correct. "An assortment of people were . . ." is not correct and this very construction is commonly used by test writers to test agreement in number for the very reason that it does sound correct. I tried a couple of grammar check systems and they agree with my analysis. Since the writing samples used for college admission in the US are moving toward a human-less scoring scheme, I expect grammatical standards will become even more concrete. The questioner is from Minnesota and if he starts going around saying stuff like, "The Committee are unable to reach a consensus," he might get deported to a land where HRH Prince William posts, "It.s a Boy. Beautiful Boy." on FB.

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'Assortment' in this sense is a collective noun. In Britain collective nouns can be either singular or plural depending on what sounds right. There is an extensive Wikipaedia entry on this.

This applies to things like a herd of cows, a warren of rabbits, a school of fish, an army of ants, a flock of sheep etc.

This may not be the case in America where sports teams are always singular. 'Our team is winning'. But in Britain sports teams are always plural. 'Arsenal are currently top of the Premier League'. 'The England cricket team are currently playing Australia in an Ashes series'. India are currently the undisputed leaders in world cricket. In the London Olympics, Gt Britain, with 29 gold, were third in the medals table'. (This last could have been 'was' as an Olympic 'team' is a rather loose concept)

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Thank you! I could not come up with the term collective noun to safe my life. Quite correct that in the US, most of the time they are singular; however, it all depends on what the subject of the verb is. An assortment of people visited us is (in my mind at least) plural because people is the subject of visited. It's not always black-and-white with American English either; there's just not as much leeway as in British English. Teams is almost always used to highlight the differences in our dialects, but there are other less concrete instances. –  John Q Public Nov 22 '13 at 23:16
    
@John Q Public Not according to this, and this Wikipedia article (In American English, collective nouns are almost always singular in construction: the committee was unable to agree. However, when a speaker wishes to emphasize that the individuals are acting separately, a plural pronoun may be employed with a singular or plural verb: the team takes their seats, rather than the team takes its seats.) –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 22 '13 at 23:41
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I don't know why you think that, but you're wrong; names of sports teams are almost never singular in the U.S. (They're pretty much the only collective noun that isn't; names of bands can be either singular or plural, and things like Congress and Parliament are usually singular.) "Our team is winning", but "The Red Sox are winning." –  Peter Shor Nov 23 '13 at 3:19
    
@PeterShor But isn't that because 'The Red Sox' is a plural phrase, like the 'Dallas Cowboys', or the 'Washington Redskins'. But Americans in Britain always say 'United is beating Chelsea', and 'England is playing Argentina'. What happens if Mississippi is playing Nevada at tidliwinks? Would you say Nevada is winning, or are winning? In Britain it would definitely be 'are'. –  WS2 Jan 24 at 16:45
    
@WS2. The Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic and the Utah Jazz are treated as plural, as well. For national teams, and for universities, we use "is" ... "Mississippi is playing Nevada". So I think it should be "England is playing Argentina", but "United are beating Chelsea". Maybe the Americans who treat "United" as singular moved to England before the Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic were founded (around 1990)... I think it took several years for sportscasters to decide whether to use the singular or plural with them after that. –  Peter Shor Jan 24 at 17:38

There are many phrases of the form

a/n X of Y's

(where X is a term denoting the group of which the Y's are members). X is called a collective noun.

Sometimes, X is 'banal', often applying to many different Y's: a crowd of people; a group of trees.

...

Sometimes, X is esoteric, usually restricted to one particular Y: a pride of lions; a gaggle of geese.

...

Sometimes, X is more than just a term for 'a collection of', indicating more detail about the collection: a flight of aircraft; an assortment of buttons.

In all these cases, in 'British English', the 'rule' governing agreement is:

Are you considering the collection as a grouped unit

(the team was founded in 1845) (the crowd was the largest ever seen in Michel Delving)

or are you considering the individual members?

(the team were fighting amongst themselves) (the crowd were getting more violent)

In this particular case, I'd shy away from pairing 'people' with 'assortment' (which I feel connotes physical sorting). 'Selection' seems more appropriate.

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4  
With the notable exception of teams it is the same rule in British and American English. There are several AmE collective nouns that may be only one or the other, but assortment is not one. An assortment of people were here is completely acceptable in AmE. –  John Q Public Nov 22 '13 at 23:23
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@John: Tell that bit about "team is always singular" to whoever wrote this Wikipedia article. The first paragraph there starts with The Boston Red Sox are a professional baseball team based in Boston, and the second starts with Boston was a dominant team in the new league. –  FumbleFingers Nov 22 '13 at 23:35
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@FF: 'Team' as a word, not referentially. –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 23 '13 at 0:00
    
@FumbleFingers the subject of that sentence is the Boston Red Sox, not team. –  John Q Public Nov 23 '13 at 21:55

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