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I was just copyediting somebody's answer on another SE site and my native English speaker Sprachgefühl told me I had to correct the grammar of one sentence:

... 5–6 weeks are a lot of time ...

by changing the are to is. But as I was doing so I started wondering why is it that in this case it seems that I have to make the verb disagree with the plural subject?

So is my feeling for English going bad or if I did the right thing, how could I explain this to somebody who's learning English for instance?

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It's not just time. Fifty to sixty miles is a long way to come. Fifty kilos is a lot to carry. –  Peter Shor May 12 '12 at 17:24
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possible duplicate of "Years of experience that keeps us safe." vs "Years of experience that keep us safe.". Except in that one you could make a case for singular or plural - but in this one there's no choice because a lot of time is singular, and the verb must agree with that. –  FumbleFingers May 12 '12 at 17:26
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@hippietrail,Shyam: I overstated my case. I don't have a problem with crosswords are a good {singular noun phrase}. I suspect most people wouldn't much like any variant of "[a] crossword[s] is a game|are games". It's a gray area where there can't really be a "grammatical rule" because whatever the rule said, some people wouldn't like to apply it (in some contexts, at least). –  FumbleFingers May 13 '12 at 14:48
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@Shyam: There are other words in English which work this way: "Marbles is a game.", "Dominoes is a game.", "Dungeons and Dragons is a game.", etc. –  hippietrail May 17 '12 at 12:33
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@hippietrail: and to complicate things, consider "Marbles is a game where marbles are laid out in a circular area." –  horatio May 17 '12 at 16:13

3 Answers 3

Use is because you're talking about a single period of time with a range-based duration.

There are extensive discussions of the subtleties of Collective Nouns and Mass Nouns on Wikipedia that explain from a technical perspective why some seemingly plural things are treated as singular grammatically.

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So this is one way in which a phrase can look plural but be grammatically singular? –  hippietrail May 12 '12 at 17:12
    
@hippietrail - Absolutely. It works too when the plural thing is a class of objects, i.e. when the subject is the class as a whole, not the individual instances within the class. –  Joel Brown May 12 '12 at 17:14
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@Joel: I don't understand your comment. I don't think you'd say "trees is" under any circumstances, even if you're talking about trees as a class as a whole. –  Peter Shor May 12 '12 at 17:32
    
@PeterShor - Fair enough - I was referring specifically to collective nouns and mass nouns. For example you wouldn't say "the forest are obscuring those trees" even though a forest is a collection of trees. Similarly, for example, cutlery (collectively) is made of metal. –  Joel Brown May 12 '12 at 18:07
    
I would really like to see an answer addressing this point from a technical view (grammatical or linguistic) before I accept one of the answers. I have a hunch we might be able to word some kind of "range-based duration" another way which might need are. –  hippietrail May 13 '12 at 7:29

You use the singular because it's a quantity of time. From this website

Quantities or measurements of time, money, distance, weight usually take singular verbs.

It's not just restricted to time, money, distance and weight;

Fifty milliamps is enough to kill a man.
Three G is enough to make a pilot black out.

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It should be is because you take the time collectively, so it's singular.

See 'Making Subjects and Verbs Agree', Item# 10 at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/599/01/

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Number 10 has nothing to do with the question; it's only talking about people. Further, it's inconsistent. If someone says "The crew are preparing to dock the ship," they will also say "My family have never been able to agree" (I believe these two sentences can have either a plural or a singular verb in American English). –  Peter Shor May 12 '12 at 17:25
    
@Peter Shor That is explained in the same place, as well. –  Kris May 17 '12 at 7:31

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