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What kind of verb, singular or plural, goes with phrases like "a record of [singular or plural noun]", "the use of", "the time of"? Does the choice depend on the following nouns (a record of nouns) or on the 'first' nouns (record, use, time)? Or do these phrases obey the rule of proximity (as does "a variety of")?

I have found different example sentences on the internet (source: newspapers or magazines) with different uses. What is correct?

Examples:

  • there were a record of other issues;
  • there were a record of 28,000 runners;
  • there was a record of these statements.
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Can you clarify what it is you're asking here? –  onomatomaniak Oct 6 '11 at 11:04
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What is the rule of proximity? How does that fit with 'yes or no'? Give more examples for things that follow the rule and those that seem not to. –  Mitch Oct 6 '11 at 11:30
    
I've revised the title, but like @Mitch, I don't know what you believe the "rule of proximity" is, so I'm not sure what to do with that part of the question. –  Marthaª Oct 6 '11 at 13:40

5 Answers 5

First, you're confusing the issue a bit with a misuse of "a record" in the adjectival sense. "There was a record of 28,000 runners participating" technically1 means that documentation existed for this number of runners – perhaps there were more runners, but the remainder were not documented. Here, the subject is "record", so the verb is singular. If you're trying to unambiguously remark on the fact that 28,000 is a large number, you need to leave out the "of": "There were a record 28,000 runners participating." Here, the subject is "runners", so the verb is plural.

1 In practice, it's an ambiguous statement, because lots of people use "a record of" incorrectly.

In the general case of "a [x] of [y]", the verb should agree with [x], unless it's one of the special cases (e.g. a lot of) where [x] itself is sorta-kinda plural in meaning, and so can take a plural verb. To figure it out, you can remove the extra words and see if the result sounds correct.

  • There was a record of these statements. (There was a record.)
  • The use of apples instead of pears was unexpected. (The use was unexpected.)
  • It was a time of mass uprisings and protests. (It was a time.)
  • There were a lot of people present. (There were a lot.)
  • A variety of options were available. (A variety were available.)
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Nice answer. A minor quibble: I don’t think record is an adjective in a record 28,000 runners. It can’t itself be modified by an adverb (a regionally record 28,000 runners is wrong; a state record 28,000 runners is acceptable if a bit news-y). To me that suggests it’s a noun even when used attributively. –  Jason Orendorff Oct 6 '11 at 14:33
    
@Jason: "is used adjectivally" and "is an adjective" are two different things. :) –  Marthaª Oct 6 '11 at 14:37
    
"A record of" can be used in both senses. "There was a record of 28,000 runners participating in the race." can mean that 28,000 runners participated, and that this was more than ever before. If lots of people use an idiom, I don't think you can say this idiom isn't allowed in English. You might be able to say that the verb has to be associated with the noun record, and otherwise it isn't grammatical, since this appears to be in accordance with general use (see Jason's comment on my answer). But "He broke the world record of 3 minutes and 43 seconds." is a perfectly good English sentence. –  Peter Shor Oct 6 '11 at 15:36
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@Martha: I don't understand the distinction between "a record of 28000 runners participating in the race" and "a world record of 3 minutes and 43 seconds". –  Peter Shor Oct 6 '11 at 16:18
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@PeterShor: there isn't a distinction, but again, that has nothing to do with this question. Instead, compare "They tried to reach a world record of 28000 runners" and "A world-record 28000 runners participated." In the first, "record" is a noun, in the second, it's an adjective. –  Marthaª Oct 6 '11 at 16:32

Usually, in sentences like this, the verb must agree with the first noun. There are a few nouns ("a lot of", "a kind of", "a herd of") where the verb will always or often agree with the second noun.

Note that "a record of" can have two meanings: as in "documentation" or as in "world record". For the first meaning ("a record of other issues"), the verb should always agree with "record". For the second meaning ("a record of 28,000 runners"), my feeling is that both choices can be grammatical.

Whether the verb should agree with the first or second noun should depend on which noun is associated with the action of the verb (often, either choice is acceptable).

A record of thirty runners were treated for heat stroke this year.

A record of thirty Atlantic hurricanes was set that year.

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I don’t think a record of 28,000 runners actually occurs. –  Jason Orendorff Oct 6 '11 at 13:07
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I searched COCA for an embarrassingly long time and found that people very rarely use of in this kind of phrase. I only found one instance of record of (NP starting with a number) that seems to qualify: On a single day, 11 days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, a record of 27 tornadoes formed in Wisconsin. As it happens, the grammar of that sentence doesn’t tell us if it’s plural (but it seems likely). –  Jason Orendorff Oct 6 '11 at 14:12
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I should explain that while record of (number) is pretty common, it’s almost always some kind of sports reference, like a record of five wins and three losses, which is singular in standard English. –  Jason Orendorff Oct 6 '11 at 14:19

It looks as if you're asking "Does the phrase 'a record of several things' take a singular or plural verb?" If so, the answer is "Singular"; the verb agrees with the noun, not with the description. Proximity has nothing to do with it. (This should also be closed as general reference).

If you're asking something else, please clarify.

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Not general reference, and, I believe, not completely correct. To my ear, "A record of 20 runners was treated for heat stroke this year." has the wrong verb. –  Peter Shor Oct 6 '11 at 12:50
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@Peter: that's because it should actually be "A record 20 runners", not "A record of 20 runners". –  Marthaª Oct 6 '11 at 13:31
    
@Martha: depending on whether you are a prescriptivist or a descriptivist ... I do agree that this revision would indeed make it grammatically impeccable, but I don't think it's what people always use. –  Peter Shor Oct 6 '11 at 14:09

These are genitive constructs, where the "of x" is a restriction applied to the noun. The purpose of the genitive is to restrict the noun, it is not the object of the verb itself. (Strictly since you are using a copula here, I should say it is not the complement of the noun, but you get the idea.)

There was a record of lots of people.

The complement of the verb is "record." You can see this by dropping part of the sentence.

There was a record.

This is clearly correct. The rest of the sentence "of lots of people" simply restricts which type of record you are talking about.

See Can "what kind" be plural? for a similar discussion.

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But I thought our conclusion for that question was that "what kind" could be plural, and certainly "a lot of" is almost always plural. –  Peter Shor Oct 6 '11 at 15:33
    
Yes, "what kind" can be plural, just as one could say "there were records of lots of people." The number of the genitive has no impact on the verb. –  Fraser Orr Oct 6 '11 at 22:52

Taking There were a record of 28,000 runners, OP asks whether the verb (were) should agree with the nearest noun (singular "record"), or the most important (plural "runners"). Note that "runners" is most important noun, because the sentence cannot make any sense without it.

I prefer the plural, but grammatically it's significant that I would always discard the word "of".

Googling, for example, quotated "There were a record five" [million viewers for the big match/whatever], gets less than 5000 hits - compared to 240,000 for "There was a record five...". Thanks to @Peter Shor for checking these figures to show they are an extreme example of Google's unreliable guestimate About nnn results. In reality there are only about 80 hits for "were", and barely a dozen for "was". Not only are the original estimates out by orders of magnitude - they're even misleading in terms of which is the more common form.

I agree with other comments below that without "of", "record n" is an adjectival phrase modifying runners/viewers/whatever. Grammatically there's no doubt the plural is correct in this case.

The singular would be correct if "of" were present, but to be honest I find that construction so ungainly I would never use it in OP's example context. Nor would others, it seems - scanning the first hundred written instances of "was a record of" in NGrams, I don't see a single example reflecting OP's usage (effectively, they're all a recording of).

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Prefer? I realize we're al descriptive here, but there are limits. The verb -should- agree with the head noun, not the noun of a phrase subordinate to the head. –  Mitch Oct 6 '11 at 12:38
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Google counts funny for phrases in quotation marks; "there was a record five" only gives 14 actual results, while "there were a record five" gives 86 actual results. You have to click on the result pages until they run out in order to know how many results there really were. –  Peter Shor Oct 6 '11 at 12:41
    
There are two possible phrases here, taking different verbs. I thought OP meant There was a record of 28,000 people running, but it may be There were 28,000 people running (a record number). –  TimLymington Oct 6 '11 at 12:47
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@Mitch But surely you wouldn’t say A lot of people is upset about it. Some idioms like lot of X can take on the number of X rather than the number of the head noun. –  Jason Orendorff Oct 6 '11 at 13:02
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Right. So the question is whether record of is one of those idioms. I’m not used to hearing it, myself, but to the extent that people do say such things, I would expect to hear a record of 25 million people are watching, not a record of 25 million people is watching. –  Jason Orendorff Oct 6 '11 at 14:16

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