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My boyfriend and I are arguing about whether the phrase "a lot of ideas" should be followed with is or are. I say that it should be is because the verb is linking to a lot, not ideas. If it were "lots of ideas" I would say it is definitely are. He thinks, though, that since a lot is synonymous with several it should be are. Which is correct?

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Googling for "a lot of ideas are" gives 684 000 results, "a lot of ideas is" - only 145 000. – ezpresso Jul 22 '11 at 14:42
@ezpresso: Worse, a random sample of 20 from the Google results for "a lot of ideas is" only generated two using "is" as the singular verb with "a lot of ideas". Most of them were of the form "Generating a lot of ideas is easy." – Peter Shor Jul 22 '11 at 14:55
Also, some non-native speakers write in English and occasionally their writing appears in Google search results. – Neil Coffey Jul 22 '11 at 15:41
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Logically you are correct; "a lot" is the subject of the sentence. Colloquially, "a lot" can also mean "many", which takes a plural verb.

If you were talking about a lot more directly as a lot, you would use the singular:

This lot of wares is being shipped to (address).
Up next at the auction is lot 6124.

For cases where I really mean "many" I try to say either "lots of" or "many" instead of "a lot of X are".

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Thank you! It's tough to be wrong :) – Brittany Jul 22 '11 at 14:51
To clarify this (correct) answer, "a lot of ideas" is actually a combined noun with two elements. Depending on the emphasis of the verb, you can direct the meaning toward "a lot" (is) or "ideas" (are). – The Raven Jul 22 '11 at 15:22

Lot, when used as a lot or lots, means "a large number or amount." It is used a pronoun in informal contexts and, in the phrases as the one you used as example, is used as plural.

There are a lot of actors in the cast.

It's what happens with other indefinite pronouns, such as both, few, many (which means "a large number of") others, and several.
All those pronouns are regarded as plural. You don't say "few of them is crazy," but "few of them are crazy"; it's not "many of my neighbors has a summer house on Long Island," but "many of my neighbors have a summer house on Long Island."

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The original meaning of lot as used here is "a number of units of an article, a single article, or a parcel of articles offered as one item" (Merriam-Webster) and is thus clearly singular (e.g., The driver delivered a lot of trees to the parking lot in time for Christmas).

Early on (evidently 16th century), this concrete sense began to be used in a figurative or transferred sense (e.g., 1575: "a lot of wasps" --OED) and in variations such as "a lot," "lots of," "the lot," etc.

With time and frequent use, the phrase "a lot of" has come to be considered plural. Though lot will forever remain grammatically singular, it will also always be considered plural by most readers and writers.

This presents the careful writer with a dilemma: to be grammatically correct or to blend in with the herd? Should one write "In the background of this picture there are a lot of trees" or ". . . there is a lot of trees"?

In defense of plural construction I have actually encountered the arguments: "the grammar of English has changed" and "a lot of" has become a "syntactic unit" (or a "lexical unit"), both of which I find spurious.

No, dilemmas such as this (some of which have already been noted in this thread) abound in English, and, regrettably? there can be no resolution; each writer must decide for him or herself.

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It seems a bit too simplistic to me to equate 'a lot' with 'many.' It is definitely counter-habitual, like the 'none of them is' vs 'none of them are' question. But 'a lot,' from any which angle is referring to a single object.

It is also not only with 'a lot' that we tend to keep it in plurals. Even when we say "There are a number of problems with your report," we are taking a single object, which is 'A number' and giving it the plural verb form.

Yet we never say "There ARE a bunch of papers in my study." So it seems to me, at the cost of sounding damning, that while we all say it, because it sounds ok to us, we are grammatically incorrect. Many who say 'None of them are' find it very difficult to adjust.

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I definitely would say "There are a bunch of papers in my study". However, I would also say "Here is a bunch of flowers for the table." It all depends on context. – Peter Shor Mar 24 '12 at 16:20
@PeterShor, why does the different context change the verb? The structure is almost the same. Do you mean you just prefer to/are habituated with saying "There are a bunch of papers in my study" or do you actually find a different set of rules for the 2 sentences? – Akin Jul 25 '12 at 8:40
In those sentences, when I talk about "a bunch of flowers", I think of it as a single thing, but when I'm talking about "a bunch of papers", I think of it as many papers. It's not a strict set of rules. There are situations where I would make "a bunch of flowers" plural, or "a bunch of papers" singular. – Peter Shor Jul 25 '12 at 9:42

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