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Formally, is it correct to write:

A number of questions has been asked here.

or:

A number of questions have been asked here.

As a non-native speaker of English, I would prefer the former: the subject seems to be "number", therefore the verb ought to be singular, I'd say. However, the latter seems more common, and therefore I believe that my gut feeling is just plain wrong — but I would really like to have a definite answer.

Moreover, is it the same for "a myriad of", "a plethora of", and so on?

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Side note: "myriad" is an adjective, plethora is a noun. Thus, you have "a plethora of ideas" or "myriad ideas". "A myriad of..." is never correct. –  res Nov 22 '10 at 14:44
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Every dictionary i know of lists "myriad" as an adjective and a noun. –  cHao Nov 22 '10 at 17:18
    
Another hoary old chestnut in this general area is the majority, where I see quite a few authorities try to get round that one by claiming the noun can be either singular or plural. There is quite a range of opinions on the issue, though I personally am deeply suspicious of the first clause in this sentence. –  FumbleFingers Apr 4 '11 at 18:02
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2 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

"The number" is singular. "A number", however, is plural, and takes a plural verb. Thus, for both informal and formal usage, the following is correct:

A number of questions have been asked here.

See the usage note not quite halfway down the page at Dictionary.com, or this daily writing tip.

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Thanks for this answer; it seems to be the only one that sticks to the actual facts! –  Kosmonaut Nov 22 '10 at 18:28
    
+1: I like this finely drawn distinction. –  Robusto Nov 23 '10 at 15:20
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I feel like this is implying that "A number" is always plural. It would make more sense to note that in this case, "questions" is the subject, and "a number" is describing the quantity (where "a number" really means "multiple"). You could remove the "A number of" entirely and still have a valid sentence: "Questions have been asked here." –  KChaloux Apr 6 '12 at 16:52
    
@KChaloux: that's an interesting interpretation (basically, you're saying that "a number of" is the modifier, rather than "of questions" being the modifier), but it's equally valid to remove the "questions" part: A number have been asked here. –  Marthaª Jun 7 '12 at 13:37
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While omitting modifiers can be helpful in analyzing a sentence, I don't think you can just drop any words you like and expect the remainder to have the same function as in the original sentence. Suppose someone wrote, "The dog next to the bushes are brown." If you drop out "the dog next to" leaving "The bushes are brown", then "are" is clearly correct, but that doesn't make the original sentence right! –  Jay Feb 12 '13 at 15:13
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Just looking at the words themselves, you would logically conclude that the former construction is preferable, but you're correct in observing that no one uses them that way, because they're wrong. Technically, yes, the subject is singular, but there are many phrases in English that are used to describe amount, such as "a lot", "a bunch", and "a few", which are singular but always used as though they were plural. It's neither colloquial nor informal to say "a number have been asked".

There is some disagreement on whether "none" should be used as singular or plural, since it was originally a contraction of the word for "not" and that for "one" or "any". Generally speaking, both "none is" and "none are" are correct, but the latter is, again, more common.

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I think it is misleading to say that it is formally the former, because even if someone were writing a paper for a scientific journal they wouldn't write it that way. There is no circumstance or situation where the singular agreement would be correct, including formal situations. –  Kosmonaut Nov 22 '10 at 14:01
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Agreed on all counts. Furthermore, the quantifiers you name ("a number", "a lot", "a bunch", etc.) are so strongly plural that they would take a plural verb even in the absence of a plural genitive of specification. e.g. "Someone brought cookies! A number have been eaten." –  res Nov 22 '10 at 14:45
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"A number... has been asked" is incorrect. In any context. Formally, informally, slangily, ultra-correctly, in every way you can think of, it should be "A number ... have been asked". –  Marthaª Nov 22 '10 at 18:16
    
@Kosmonaut, @Martha: You're absolutely right. I meant formally in the sense of a formal grammar, which would assume that English is typed and "a number" is always just as singular as it looks. It was unclear from context, but I did go on to say "it's neither colloquial nor informal" to use them in the plural. Editing to clarify. –  Jon Purdy Nov 22 '10 at 19:48
    
+1 for the edited answer, because it addresses the probable source of the confusion. –  Marthaª Nov 22 '10 at 22:50
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