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I wrote a sentence for our web site that was submitted for proofreading. The proofreader "corrected" my sentence. I asked how sure he was that he was correct and that I was incorrect. He explained that there are two schools of thought on what's correct and he chose his way as the right way.

I suggested that there were certainly two schools of thought: the right way and the wrong way.

  1. School One:

    There is a large number of companies.

  2. School Two:

    There are a large number of companies.

Can you tell me which is the correct school of thought and why?

Update. I think I should be able to reverse the sentence and still have it makes sense. When I attempt that, it works only with one of these sentences:

The number of companies is large.

The number of companies are large.

This suggests to me that the correct sentence uses "is". Does this make any difference?

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Please provide more context. There are a large number of companies... that do what? That are based where? You can avoid this altogether by saying A large number of companies [do whatever]. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jun 1 '12 at 15:18
    
This is the complete sentence. There is a follow up sentence though. "Please be patient." –  Evik James Jun 1 '12 at 15:28
    
So, "there are two hundred companies", but "there is one hundred companies"? –  JeffSahol Jun 1 '12 at 16:50
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@cornbreadninja: "avoid this altogether"? In your construction, the exact same question still applies. The verb has been moved to a different position in the sentence, but it still has to agree with — well, that is still the question: agree with what? You seem to think it should agree with companies, i.e. you subscribe to School Two. –  RegDwigнt Jun 1 '12 at 17:26
    
@RegDwightΒВBẞ8 I was trying to agree with number. At any rate, since we now know it to be the full sentence, I don't know what I think anymore. :) –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jun 1 '12 at 18:21
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7 Answers 7

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Garner in Garner's Modern English Usage (2003) belongs to School Two. He writes (p559):

A. ... but a number of is quite correctly paired with a plural noun and a plural verb, as in there are a number of reasons ... .
This construction is correct because of the linguistic principle known as SYNESIS, which allows some constructions to control properties such as number according to their meaning rather than strict syntactical rules. Since the meaning of a number of things is many things (or several things), and since some things is plural, the verb must be plural. [...]
B. The number of. When the phrase is used with the definite article the, everything changes. Now, instead of talking about the multiple things, we're talking about the number itself, which is singular: the number of students planning to attend college is steadily rising.
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You could invent spurious prescriptivist arguments to convince yourself that either is "correct". (And so, the prescriptivists have...) Once you go down the road of inventing arguments, there's no absolute answer to that question.

What really matters is this: which version do you think sounds more clear and natural?

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I disagree. I am writing for a general audience. My goal is to appeal to them, not to me. I want to ensure that I follow the standards that are agreed on by the majority. –  Evik James Jun 1 '12 at 18:53
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Isn't your goal to convey information to them in a clear, effective manner? And isn't your job as writer to make a judgement on how to do so? If you see your primary goal as being to pander to the majority of pedants irrespectively of how clearly you convey your information, then for every pedant you'll probably find an equal and opposite pedant on this issue. I'd just flip a coin. –  Neil Coffey Jun 1 '12 at 19:44
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The head word in the phrase a large number of companies is companies, which requires plural agreement. A large number of premodifies the head word, but does not determine the agreement.

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On the other hand, "The number of companies seeking financial assistance is greater than we anticipated". Plurality for the purposes of verb agreement depends on whether number or companies is more "central" to the meaning. I suspect you'd probably say number is the "head word" in my example, which possibly amounts to circular reasoning (we already know what plurality we want the verb to have, and designate the appropriate noun as "head word" accordingly). –  FumbleFingers Jun 1 '12 at 21:31
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Barrie, given the NP “a large number of companies”, surely the head noun must be number? Isn’t “companies” just the object the prepositional phrase that syntactically hangs off number? At least that’s how it pans out in any parser I know of in NLP (natural language processing) programs. The question then is whether one construes number to be numerically singular or numerically plural. I should think numbers would be the plural of the singular number here, but perhaps this is one of those nouns of multitude, like team or family. Not sure I’ve ever analysed it that way myself. –  tchrist Jun 2 '12 at 0:36
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But I do agree that things like “a large number of” work out to be practically equivalent to many, and no one would ever think “many XXX” could ever be singular. –  tchrist Jun 2 '12 at 0:42
    
"Of companies" just says what the large number is the number of. For example, one could just as well say: "We will get to each company as soon as we can. There is a large number." Why do you see it as [a large number of][companies] and not [a large number][of companies]? –  David Schwartz Jun 2 '12 at 3:39
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@FumbleFingers (and others): 'A number of . . .' - plural agreement. 'The number of . . .' - singular agreement. The issue is a little clouded by the construction ‘There is/are . . .’ It’s perhaps clearer with a pair of sentences such as ‘A large number of companies are closing’ and ‘The large number of new companies is a good indicator of the city’s economic health.’ Would anyone want to argue for ‘A large number of companies is closing’? –  Barrie England Jun 2 '12 at 6:23
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To me

there are companies

sounds a lot better than

there is companies

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Your answer is kind of irrelevant because it doesn't address the question I posted. –  Evik James Jun 1 '12 at 18:51
    
@Evik James Neil asked which sounded better. I thought I was contributing to the discussion. My answer does answer your question. I think 'there are a large number of companies' is better. –  mikeY Jun 1 '12 at 19:25
    
You should have answered Neil's question as a comment to his question. You answered my question directly. You wrote "there are companies" sounds better in your answer. You wrote "there are a large number of companies" in your comment. That's not the same thing. Please clarify. Your clarification will be your awesome contribution. –  Evik James Jun 1 '12 at 19:48
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@Evik James I think you are smart enough that you don't need an awesome clarification. Cheers. –  mikeY Jun 1 '12 at 19:52
    
@mikeY: So which sounds better, "There are a large number" or "There is a large number"? Your answer doesn't answer the question. It answers a very different question where the "of" is missing, making "companies" serve a totally different role in the sentence. –  David Schwartz Jun 2 '12 at 3:40
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In these areas (subject-verb agreement), there are actually three 'rules' or principles which operate: grammatical concord, notional concord (or synesis), and the proximity principle. Which one takes precedence is not set in tablets of stone.

For instance, both US and UK usage would require The team was founded in 1922. This is grammatical concord - the singular verb form agreeing with the singular noun.

However, The team has been training every day for the last two months would similarly be used in the US, while in the UK The team have been training every day for the last two months would be far more usual. This (UK) usage is called notional concord: the individual team members are implied, and the concord reflects this. Notional concord is often used with constructions using collective nouns (from the mundane - group, staff, family - to the esoteric - a gaggle of geese were approaching) and quantifiers. I'd always say:

There are many companies... (as would we all!);

There are a large number of companies...

There are a / one hundred companies... (nice example, Jeff).

Also, 25% / 1/4 of companies are ... (but 1/4 is less than 1/3)

For completeness, I'll add a quote from CS Lewis on the accepted use of the proximity principle when the (other) 'rules' would argue against such usage: "Don't take any notice of teachers and text-books in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say 'More than one passenger was hurt,' although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was!" (C.S. Lewis, letter to Joan, June 26, 1956. C. S. Lewis' Letters to Children, ed. by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead. Touchstone, 1995)

And the 'rules' sometimes don't even suggest 'the right answer':

"Sometimes syntax itself makes it impossible to follow the agreement rule. In a sentence like Either John or his brothers are bringing the dessert, the verb can't agree with both parts of the subject. Some people believe that the verb should agree with the closer of the two subjects. This is called agreement by proximity." (The American Heritage Book of English Usage. Houghton Mifflin, 1996)

It is usually best to check with say style guides approved by the people paying for the writing.

There aren't universal rules in English - no-one would replace the ill-formed "It's us" with

"It are us"

"They are us"

"It's we"

"It are we" ...

And in the US, apparently The Beatles were and the Stones were reflect UK usage, as does Jethro Tull was (the band!), but Metallica was doesn't!

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I don’t really think that’s what’s doing on. I have heard of number being construed as a noun of multitude as team can be. “This number ∗are greater than number” doesn’t scan for me under any circumstances. Does it for you? –  tchrist Jun 2 '12 at 0:38
    
Sorry, tchrist, can you clarify that? –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 2 '12 at 0:42
    
What I mean is that I think the well-documented US/UK disparity over certain nouns of multitude is not the governing issue here. I couldn’t imagine anyone ever saying “A large number of people ∗is late”, no matter which side of the pond they row their boat on. For whatever reason, it must be “a large number of people are late.” Somehow “a large number of” there works like “many”, and so confers plurality on the whole subject. On the other hand, in “The number of such people is ever rising”, here number becomes plural. Hm!! It’s curious, and I can’t really explain it. –  tchrist Jun 2 '12 at 0:46
    
Either Reg or his proofreader seems to want There is a large number of companies.! I think that the issue is the {grammatical rule - verb must agree with syntactic head} v {notional agreement - verb dictated by whether the group / family / collection / gaggle ... is being considered as a whole or as individuals} –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 2 '12 at 1:01
    
And a number of really refers to those members of the subset, so takes are, whereas the number of refers to the size of the subset, so takes is. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 2 '12 at 1:10
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Look again at both sentences.

There is a large number of companies. 
There are a large number of companies.

The noun in each is "number" It is singular. Therefore the correct form of "be" is "is". The plural "companies" is in the prepositional phrase and therefore does not effect the verb.

EDIT:

I've come back to argue against myself. Maybe the OP and I can both learn something. Take these three sentences:

There is one. There are many. There are a lot. 

In the third, there is only 1 "lot" yet we say "are" because "lot" implies plurality. Perhaps replacing "lot" with "large number" shouldn't change the rest of the sentence

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You can avoid the ambiguity fairly straightforwardly:

The number of companies is large.
There are numerous companies.

In both cases, the head word with which the verb shall agree is far clearer than in the original construction.

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