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In the office, we've been having a discussion about the grammar in a sentence and have differing opinions about what is right and what is wrong... It is a very minor issue but is still bugging me :)

The sentence in question is:

A wide range of features is available.

Which sounds more natural to me if it is written as:

A wide range of features are available.

The justification for it is that the "is" is referring to the "wide range of features" as a whole rather than just the "features".

I was just about getting used to it when I decided to substitute a different word instead of "features". I just can't get my head around something like:

A wide range of sausages is available.

Further to this, if I substitute "a wide range of" with "various" then it has to be are.

Which one is right?

Edit: Thanks for all of the responses. I didn't expect to open up such a can of worms but now I understand the technicalities. I still prefer are in this case though :)

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It's not so much a can of worms as a hardy perennial that manifests in a wide range of forms. The standard one being the majority. –  FumbleFingers Apr 4 '11 at 18:55
    
Here's a case from real life - in an article I'm editing right now: "Successful marketing is a complex system of tasks that includes planning, positioning, implementation, and tracking." Is there really an argument here for "include" in this case? –  The Raven Apr 4 '11 at 20:21
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Collective noun phrases in English can be morphologically singular but syntactically plural. They can also be syntactically singular. Both ways are grammatical! Anyone who tells you collective noun phrases must take singular verbs is just wrong about the facts of how English grammar works. –  nohat Apr 9 '11 at 0:52
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The verb depends on context. "A wide range of features is necessary for the product to be popular." "A wide range of features are available to choose from." –  Peter Shor Nov 21 '12 at 23:05

7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

“A wide range of features is available” is more ‘technically correct’ according to traditional prescriptive grammar, and arguably more logical.

Both forms are completely idiomatically acceptable, though; Google n-grams suggests that as of the 90’s, they were roughly equally common:

enter image description here

That shows just this specific example, which appears only in recent decades, but there are a host of other similar constructions, going back for centuries, and in many levels of writing, not just casual speech. So well-informed modern grammars agree, both forms are completely correct; go with whatever you feel flows best!

Edit: Actually, in contexts like yours, are is probably rather more common than that graph might suggest. Looking more closely, of the results for “range of features is”, quite a lot are in contexts like “The range of features is typically quite large…”, where “are” wouldn’t make sense — the predicate unambiguously applies to the range, not to the individual features. I can’t think of a corpus search that would weed out such cases; on a very rough perusal of Google Books results, I’d guesstimate that in contexts like yours where either is idiomatic (eg “…a remarkable range of features is/are visible…”), the are form is maybe about twice as common as the is. (Thanks to @FumbleFingers for pointing this out in comments.)

Edit: as comments on other answers show, the two versions aren’t always interchangeable; one can certainly come up with examples where only one or the other is idiomatic. But in this specific example, both are quite fine, as the n-grams search above and more in-depth searching along similar lines illustrate.

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This Ngram may be a bit misleading. The viewer currently limits number of words in a search term to 5, making it difficult to see exactly how the variants get used. A quick glance through some actual texts suggests is occurs most often where the noun is just "The range", often with focus on exactly that noun. Where the focus is actually the manifold features, are seems to predominate. –  FumbleFingers Apr 4 '11 at 17:30
    
@FumbleFingers: excellent point, thankyou. Will update the answer to reflect it! –  PLL Apr 4 '11 at 18:12

As others note, the correct form is:

"a wide range of features is available"

Some speakers will use "are" here due to the proximity of "features" to the verb. That is an error (and an extremely common one). The subject of the sentence is "range," which is singular and thus takes a singular verb.

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"Correct" in the odd sense of "what the self-appointed pundits say but nothing to do with the English that almost everybody speaks". –  Colin Fine Apr 4 '11 at 14:43
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@Colin this is English Language and Usage - Stack Exchange. A person seeking a correct answer should be provided with one. "Well, X is incorrect, but everybody does it so you should do it too" is a poor way of answering the OP's question. –  The Raven Apr 4 '11 at 15:11
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The point is that this "correctness" has a somewhat arbitrary justification and doesn't match usage, which makes its actual correctness rather less certain than you are making out. –  user1579 Apr 4 '11 at 15:45
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@Raven: And I think a person seeking a correct answer should be gently advised that "correct" is not a single-valued function. If they are writing a formal report, they'd better know and stick to what the style guides say. If they're just talking English, they're better using it the way almost everybody else does. What I hate is people perpetuating this horrible and destructive idea that "I do it but it's wrong". I don't expect that everybody will agree with me. –  Colin Fine Apr 4 '11 at 16:43
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Just because lots of people make an error that doesn't make it correct. Unfortunately the quality of grammar and language teaching in schools is dramatically going down (everywhere in the world). I have read reports written by university students that were written with style and grammar that I would not accept even from first year high school students. Not being able to recognize the subject of a sentence is an important error and should be corrected, especially when the error is so evident, as in this example. –  nico Apr 4 '11 at 23:19

The correct sentence would read:

A wide range of features is available.

This is because the verb must modify the subject of the sentence. Removing the prepositional phrase of features makes this rule more apparent:

A wide range is available.

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The verb should match the noun without the prepositional phrase. In this case, drop "of features" and you have "A wide range is/are available." Since range is singular, you would go with is, not are.

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Why should you drop "of features"? Why not "A wide range of"? Contrived reasoning is contrived. –  RegDwigнt Apr 4 '11 at 15:00
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Don't blame me, I didn't come up with the rules, contrived though they may be. You drop the "of features" because it is a prepositional phrase. –  Kevin Apr 4 '11 at 15:25
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@Kevin: Except when you don't. "A lot of people has been here lately" — does this sound correct to you? –  Kosmonaut Apr 4 '11 at 15:44
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@RegDwight: features is not the subject of the sentence, range is. –  nico Apr 4 '11 at 16:19
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@nico: on paper, to you and me, yes. In practice, to millions of native-speaker brains, quite obviously no. If native speakers all around the world happily produce "a wide range of X are" every single day without even noticing, you can't call it ungrammatical. Much rather, it's called notional agreement, and is an extremely common and well-documented feature of English. –  RegDwigнt Apr 4 '11 at 16:32

'is' would be the correct choice for this sentence as, like your colleagues say, the word 'range' is the head word and it is singular.

You have here a Noun Phrase, the words before the head (a wide) being pre-modifiers and the words after it (of features) being post modifiers.

A noun phrase is a group of words that represent one noun; the head word could stand alone in the sentence as a noun, structurally speaking. Therefore, any other elements of the sentence are applied to this head and not the rest of the phrase.

range is...

a wide range of features is...

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I can't go with the mavens on this one. By strict rules of grammar it's obviously right to say is is correct. But I'm sure we all know that nearly everyone uses are in this context without giving it a second thought. And of the one's that don't, I bet many do so with misgivings.

So it really depends on your definition of 'right'. Assuming we're not interested in any moral overtones of righteousness, I would say it's 'right' in linguistic terms to fall into line with the overwhelmingly more prevalent usage. On the grounds that language itself couldn't really work as a means of communication if we didn't normally honour that principle.

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-1 for polemic argument. Subject-verb agreement is predicated on logic rather than a weak arbitrary convention (like split infinitives, for instance), and just because something is conventional does not make it appropriate. It is pretextual to assume that "nearly everyone" ignores proper subject-verb agreement in speech. In fact, I'm apt to assume that one is ignorant or undereducated when I read or hear s-v disagreement, which I admit is equally pretextual but probably more accurate. –  HaL Apr 4 '11 at 15:52
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+1 for non-prescriptiveness. The number of times we point out that dictionaries follow usage not the other way around, you'd think that we would take the point more easily about grammar as well. –  user1579 Apr 4 '11 at 16:53
    
@Hal: I do agree with with your position in the general case, and I certainly don't think an 'illogical' violation of clearly-defined grammar automatically becomes 'right' just because, say, 60% of speakers use it. It just seems to me this is one of those rare exceptions where not only is the 'illogical' usage overwhelmingly more common - I also believe that many speakers actually consider and reject the 'correct' form. And to paraphrase Mrs T - you can't buck the majority indefinitely. Anyway, let's not drag this one out. I concede. –  FumbleFingers Apr 4 '11 at 17:06
    
In writing, it's simple enough to follow the grammatical rule. With regard to spoken English, I strongly doubt that a person speaking the phrase in question consciously evaluates "is," then rejects it favor of "are." Rather, from a linguistic standpoint, the speaker selects a verb based on the proximity of the nearest noun, all things being equal. This is surely happening at a deep-structure level. Curiously, I'd imagine that a foreign learner would be less likely to miss the mark. –  The Raven Apr 4 '11 at 21:02
    
@The Raven: I quite agree the proximity and 'plurality' of the nearest noun are usually crucial in a speaker's choice of verb form. I may have muddied the waters a bit there because I tend to say "speaker" and "utterance" even when I'm also (or even, only) talking about written language. I just hope nobody points out that should be "...*I tend to write*..." –  FumbleFingers Apr 4 '11 at 23:03

Without wanting to get too many bum splinters, I think the honest answer is that both are correct. It depends on whether the subject of the sentence is the range or the features.

Put another, consider what is actually available. Is it a single range that people can elect to have or have not? Is it a selection of features, from which people can choose as many as they desire?

If it is the former, I would suggest that range is your subject and you should use is.

If it is the latter - if you could replace

A wide range of...

with

Numerous...

then you should use are.

With this specific example, I would lean towards are, since it's unlikely that it's a single range that people can have or have not. However, the general question of subject/verb agreement with regards to plural phrases is not as simple as some answers would suggest.

If in doubt, there will invariably be an alternative phrasing that makes the answer obvious. Just go with that one instead.

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