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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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:
For cases where I really mean "many" I try to say either "lots of" or "many" instead of "a lot of X are".
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.
It's what happens with other indefinite pronouns, such as both, few, many (which means "a large number of") others, and several.
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.
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.