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I want to write that I have handful of somethings. Which of these is the correct form?

  1. There is a handful of somethings.
  2. There are a handful of somethings.

Are both correct?

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marked as duplicate by Drew, FumbleFingers, Robusto, Josh61, tchrist Sep 17 at 23:34

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8 Answers 8

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Rimmer correctly identifies phrases like a handful of . . . and a pack of . . . as premodifying elements in a noun phrase, rather than as the subject of the clause and, for the same reason, Mustafa is right in saying that a number of . . . is followed by a plural verb. However, there is a tendency, particularly in speech, for There’s . . . rather than There are . . . to be used regardless of the number of the noun that follows, as in, for example, There’s a few people who believe my story. In the words of the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ (the stripped-down version of the magisterial Longman Grammar),

‘in conversation . . . the verb is likely to be singular even when the following notional subject is plural’.

And as ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ says,

[There’s] seems to be evolving into a fixed phrase, rather like the French C’est . . . , serving the needs of the ongoing discourse rather than the grammar of the sentence.

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An upvote for you, kind sir. –  RiMMER Feb 21 '12 at 8:56
    
Is this also the rule in American English? It's not the same structure as discussed in Is audience singular or plural?, but it has some similarities. –  Mitch Feb 21 '12 at 17:52
    
@Mitch: I'm not sure it's what you'd call a rule. As for American English, I'm afraid I'm not qualified to comment. –  Barrie England Feb 21 '12 at 18:38
    
The thing I'd call a rule in your statement is that you are saying "agreement of noun in verb in 'N1 of N2 V' is with N2". Do you agree with that formulation? I think that it is not the rule for American English. I think you'd say 'a group of 5 animals is...' is wrong, and I think (but don't know for sure) that it is right (as opposed just a tendency). –  Mitch Feb 21 '12 at 19:12
1  
@Mitch: It depends on whether the writer wants to highlight the collective nature of the set, or the individual members that make it up. –  Barrie England Feb 21 '12 at 19:55

Both are correct, but it depends on the noun. You can break it down like this:

There are apples. How many? A handful. "There are a handful of apples". (incidentally, you can replace 'handful' with 'lot' or 'ton' and still have the same construction.) 'Is' may be used as a colloquial "slip" of words.

There are a handful of apples.

? There is a handful of apples.

However, let's take a non-countable noun such as 'sand' and see what sounds correct: There is sand. How much? A handful. "There is a handful of sand". If the verb was plural here, it would sound awkward to me.

There is a handful of sand.

*There are a handful of sand.

The phrase "a handful" is also idiomatic, so you can also use it as such: "He is a handful", which simply means that some person is troublesome in some way.

(Source: My intuition as a native speaker of English and a masters in applied linguistics)

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Welcome to the site. A good answer, worth an upvote. I have edited it slightly to suit the 'house style'; if you feel strongly about it, you can restore the original by rollback on the edit menu. –  TimLymington Feb 21 '12 at 11:26

Don't be confused by the fact that handful is a singular noun. You should use a plural verb.

There are many cases like this. Consider:

There are a handful of apples.
There are a pack of wolves hunting us.
There are a few people who believe my story.
A group of people are talking about what happened.

In all these cases you can see a singular noun preceded (or followed by) a plural verb. It's because the noun is not the subject of the sentence. Think of them like undefined numbers instead. Like this:

There are five people in the lobby. = There are a few people in the lobby.

EDIT: Adding another example:

The plot for The Grey (2012) reads:

In Alaska, an oil drilling team struggle to survive after a plane crash strands them in the wild. Hunting the humans are a pack of wolves who see them as intruders.

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There is a kilogram of apples. To me "a handful" is a unit, so shouldn't the singular work as well? –  Raku Feb 21 '12 at 8:44
    
What if you remove the prepositional phrase 'of wolves'? Is it then 'There are a pack hunting us.' ? –  Mitch Feb 21 '12 at 17:53
    
@Mitch: is that supposed to be irony or just a stupid question? Is "there are five hunting us" ok? –  RiMMER Feb 21 '12 at 18:32
    
It must be a stupid question since it was not intended ironically. One of your examples is "There are a pack of wolves hunting us." removing the prepositional phrase should preserve grammar. That leaves: "There are a pack hunting us." But that sounds bad. So I expect "There is a pack hunting us." and also "There is a pack of wolves hunting us." So if I went wrong, then where? –  Mitch Feb 21 '12 at 19:07
    
@Mitch: maybe you should read Barrie's answer (the currently accepted one) –  RiMMER Feb 21 '12 at 19:08

Handful is a small, undefined number or quantity. When number is preceded by "a" it is plural and takes a plural verb.

There are a handful of people.

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There is a handful of sand in the bucket. "handful" (singular) is the main word in the subject - delete anything after the preposition. The article "a" also helps in this case. There are two handfuls of sand in the bucket. "handfuls" (plural) is the main word in the subject. The adjective "two" helps :-) Using that principle... There are some people outside. There is a group... There is a group of people outside. There is a handful... There is a handful of people outside. Source: What is accepted as correct according to the extremely formal grammar used in the SAT.

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This is a US vs UK thing. In the US, this is standard:

There is a team at Cisco. Cisco is a great company.

UK:

There are a team at Cisco. Cisco are a great company.

So it is with hands full of apples as well!

There is a handful of apples. There is a pound of apples. There are two apples in a pound.

Cite: 40 years of hearing the same thing over and over

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I would say it depends upon which object in the sentence the writer intends to apply the verb to.

"There was a handful of apples"

"there was ... a handful ..."

"There were a handful of incorrect answers"

"There were ... answers"

This would become important to pronouns in following sentences. For example:

"There was a handful of apples. He threw them one by one." <--- number does not match

vs

"There were a handful of apples. He threw them one by one." <--- number matches

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There is a handful of people. Sounds best.

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Why? Sez who? Even I can't post a comment in less than 15 characters, you see? :) –  Kris May 28 '13 at 6:31
    
-1 Mere opinion with no substantiation. Also, best requires a minimum of three choices from which to choose. I think you mean better since there are only two choices (is & are). –  TrevorD May 28 '13 at 10:29

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