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Which of the following sentences is correct?

  • A variety of dishes are being prepared.
  • A variety of dishes is being prepared.

I believe that both can be used, though I'd stick with the plural use of the verb. What do you think?

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This is probably a dupe of my question here, which has been (IMHO wrongly) closed as a dupe of another different question. Mine asks about "group of...", this asks about "variety of..." - the same principle. Basically, the answer is that "variety of dishes" can be either singular OR plural based on whether you're wanting to think of it as singular or plural. –  Jez Oct 12 '11 at 9:48
See also: english.stackexchange.com/questions/5378/… –  Pukku Feb 7 '12 at 7:21
I just posted a status on my Facebook saying "I'm shocked by the number of people that does not know how to spell the name of their street" and got so much flak because I always use proper grammar. But that IS proper grammar, right? Judging from what I have read here, it seems I am correct. Take out "of people" and it's just "I'm shocked by the number that does not know how..." If I'd said "It's amazing that a number of people do not know", that would also be correct. But, even though it sounds unnatural, I believe my initial status posting was correct. –  user41705 Apr 2 '13 at 16:56
@user41705 You're choosing to use the 'grammatical concord' choice rather than the 'logical concord' choice or 'proximity concord' choice. Since most people would opt for the notional concord choice (here at least), one could argue that you're less grammatically correct than the majority are. And when you mix treatments (that does not know ... their street), you are certainly being ungrammatical. –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 13 '13 at 9:42
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7 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Both sentences are grammatical. The first makes us aware of the individual items in the variety. The second foregrounds the variety itself.

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"A variety of dishes are being prepared" is grammatically incorrect. Many people make this common mistake, and most people wouldn't notice if you made it, but the verb is supposed to agree with the word "variety," not with "dishes." "Dishes" are not the subject of the sentence. Therefore, "a variety... is prepared," not "a variety... are prepared." See, if you take the phrase out, the answer becomes obvious. Likewise, it would be "there IS a variety," not "there ARE a variety" of dishes.

"A lot of," "a number of," and "a variety of" are quantifiers. If you say "There is a variety" you mean a variety in the sense of a single kind, not a lot of different kinds. I hope you'll find is useful.

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But we say 'A number of people have tried to find the answer'. The alternative 'A number of people has tried to find the answer' doesn't sound as natural, at least not according to Swan's Practical English Usage –  Irene Oct 12 '11 at 10:34
You're right, and I found a more clear explanation for this particular case: When the word number itself is the subject it is a safe rule to treat it as singular when it has a definite article and as plural when it has an indefinite. So: "The number of people present was large", but "A large number of people were present". –  Annarita Tranfici Oct 12 '11 at 11:02
Confirmed by ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, which adds ‘In grammatical terms, the difference is that ‘number´ is the head of the subject phrase in the first sentence, but a premodifying element in the second.’ –  Barrie England Oct 12 '11 at 11:09
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How could "A variety are being prepared" be correct? It doesn't sound correct and I don't think any parenthetical remark or subordinate phrase would change that.

Perhaps you are thinking of "Various dishes are being prepared".

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You don't say 'A number are here' either, but you say 'A number of people are here', don't you? –  Irene Oct 12 '11 at 11:13
-1, because the way ‘variety’ and other words like it might behave on their own has no bearing on the matter. –  Barrie England Oct 12 '11 at 11:18
@Irene, re 'A number are here': "Hundreds of people came to talk to you while you were on vacation. A number are still here outside your office." –  Peter Shor Oct 12 '11 at 13:18
@Peter Shor Yes, and we can do the same thing with variety. "We have dozens of dishes on our menu. A variety are being prepared for you to try." –  Lunivore Oct 12 '11 at 13:47
"A variety are being prepared" is okay if you know you're talking about dishes. –  Joe Z. Jan 4 '13 at 21:01
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I would say that for "a variety of dishes", the verb should agree with either "variety" or "dishes", depending on which is the actual noun the verb acts on. There are a variety of phrases "a [noun] of" for which this is the rule (although for most phrases "a [noun] of", the verb must agree with [noun]).

Here is a variety of examples, the first two of which sound wrong (and alter the meaning) if you change the verb.

A wide variety of dishes is essential for a successful restaurant.

The dishes individually aren't essential; it's having the wide variety of them that is.

A variety of side dishes make a good accompaniment to fish.

You don't serve the fish with the variety, just with one of them.

A variety of dishes is/are being prepared.

Both the individual dishes and the whole variety of them are being prepared, so either verb works.

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The case of "a number of" is clear, logical and natural: "A number of customers has complained about this" just sounds weird, while "The number of complaining customers has increased" sounds fine. If we apply the same logic to "variety of" (and why shouldn't we?), these sentences sound fine: "The variety of such systems has quickly expanded." Or, "A variety of such systems are equipped with lasers."

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Here are the actual usage stats from the British National Corpus (BNC) and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

                                BNC      COCA

a variety of [n*]/[nn2] is     15/11     47/15
a variety of [n*]/[nn2] are    26/26     83/82

ratio plural:singular         1.7/2.4   1.8/5.5

For those unfamiliar with the query syntax, [n*] stands for any noun form, while [nn2] stands specifically for "plural common noun".

An important thing to note is that this has nothing to do with the verb immediately following the plural noun. We can move the verb directly in front of "a variety", but the preference for plural agreement doesn't change:

                                         BNC           COCA

there is a variety of /[n*]/[nn2]     23/16/12      17/  9/  6
there are a variety of /[n*]/[nn2]    56/37/34     260/187/172

ratio plural:singular               2.4/2.3/2.8  15.3/20.8/28.7

In short, plural is the agreement of choice on both sides of the pond, though interestingly considerably more so in the US.

And as you pointed out yourself in comments elsewhere on this page, this is not really surprising, but in fact perfectly in line with how similar constructions such as a number, a lot, a total, etc. behave. This is sometimes referred to as notional agreement or notional concord:

As Quirk et al. 1985 explains it, notional agreement (called notional concord by Quirk and others) is agreement of a verb with its subject or of a pronoun with its antedecent in accordance with the notion of number rather than with the presence of an overt grammatical marker for that notion. Another way to look at the matter is that of Roberts 1954, who explains that notional agreement is agreement based on meaning rather than form.

In Wikipedia, the corresponding entry is to be found under synesis:

Synesis [...] is effectively an agreement of words with the sense, instead of the morphosyntactic form. [...] Such use in English grammar is often called notional agreement (or notional concord), because the agreement is with the notion of what the noun means, rather than the strict grammatical form of the noun (the normative formal agreement). The term situational agreement is also found[.]

Notional agreement for collective nouns is very common in British English. It is less customary in American English, but may sometimes be found after phrases of the type "a collective noun of plural nouns", e.g.,

  • ... a multitude of elements were intertwined. (New York Review of Books)
  • ... the majority of all the shareholdings are in the hands of women. (Daedalus)
  • ... a handful of bathers were bobbing about in the waves. (Philip Roth)
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I think it can depend on context. "A variety of dishes are essential for a successful Chinese restaurant" means that every successful restaurant must serve some core set of dishes, say Moo Shu Chicken, Lo Mein noodles, Hot and Sour soup, and so on. "A variety of dishes is essential for a successful Chinese restaurant, means that a restaurant that serves only Peking Duck is doomed to be a failure. –  Peter Shor Jan 4 '13 at 15:46
@Peter you have a point, but it strikes me as far-fetched because in the latter case people are far more likely not to use "a variety of dishes" in the first place. They'd go with "dish variety" or just plain "variety". What's the article doing there anyway? "Variety is essential for success". Not "a variety is essential for a success". –  RegDwigнt Jan 4 '13 at 15:52
You are right that this case is rare, but I did find an instance in the wild without too much searching. "In principle, raw foods can provide all the necessary nutrients (except for the thorny issue of B-12 in vegan diets), especially if a variety of foods is utilized." –  Peter Shor Jan 4 '13 at 16:12
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"A variety of food IS available" but "a variety of dishes ARE available".

"A variety of" is a phrase that means "a large number of". This means we assume, if a variety exists, then there are more than one type of item. Hence, plural. You wouldn't say "ten dishes is available", you'd say "ten dishes are available".

The noun that follows the phrase "a variety of" is the important part (food/dishes). When the noun is singular, so is the verb.

Also, to Ashley, who questioned the correctness of "I'm shocked by the number of people that does not know how to spell the name of their street", try substituting the pronoun for the phrase "the number of __". Such as:

I'm shocked that they does not know...


I'm shocked that they do not know...

If you're talking about a number of people, then it is referring to more than one person, ergo, plural.

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