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Something I've always been confused about even as a native English speaker...

Say, someone is discussing a concert and they say: "there was a huge amount of people there". Is this correct, or should it be "there were a huge amount of people there"? People is plural while huge amount is one singular thing. Can someone explain this to me?

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See the related question and links there. –  Mitch Jun 6 '12 at 16:20
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2 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

A simple way of looking at it is: Words that come after a Preposition (e.g. "Of") are considered part of a Prepositional Phrase, and thus they're normally skipped as the "determining" Noun.

In your example, "amount" is the real Subject and not "people."

By the way, we normally say: "number" for people and other Countable Nouns. As in: "There was a huge number of people."

But, "There was a huge amount of water in the tank."

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I disagree. Phrases such as "a lot of", "a number of" and "a huge amount of" function as quantifiers, and the fact that originally they were independent noun phrases and the head of the construction is no longer relevant. The real subject is "people". –  Colin Fine Jun 6 '12 at 16:19
    
Hello Colin, I might be wrong. But a quick double-check showed me this Google search survey from a guy: "there were a huge number of" = 381k hits, "there was a huge number of" = 15.5m hits. You can find him here: andrewjshields.blogspot.com/2011/03/… Perhaps we both didn't take the actual nouns into account? –  Cool Elf Jun 6 '12 at 16:37
    
@Cool Elf: Google search numbers for phrases (rather than plain words) can be wildly inaccurate. If you search for "there was/were a humongous number of" you get 8 to 8, and for "there was/were a ginormous number of" you get 4 to 3. I trust Google in this case, where you get all the results, so I'd say the real answer is that it is pretty even, with "was" having a very small edge, well within the margin of error. –  Peter Shor Jun 6 '12 at 18:09
    
And if you're not convinced by my above comment, search Google for "there was a huge number of new". It tells you there are 2.8m hits. Click through to the 3rd page, and it only shows you 22. For "there were a huge number of new", the numbers are 35k and 49. The 2-to-1 ratio in favor of "were" is roughly what I get from Google Ngrams in my answer. The 80-to-1 ratio in favor of "was" that shows up on the first page seems completely unjustified. –  Peter Shor Jun 6 '12 at 18:57
    
I am convinced, Peter. Thanks for that ;-) –  Cool Elf Jun 7 '12 at 0:08
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To skip to the answer, both are grammatical in your case. Now, the explanation.

First, the word amount is typically used for mass nouns and for money; these both normally get treated as singular, so amount almost always will take is/was (See Ngram; many of the small proportion of 'were's are from the use of the subjunctive).

For count nouns like people we use number. So I'll analyze the same question for "a huge number of".

My rule: figure out which noun is actually the subject of the verb, and make the verb agree with that noun.

A huge number of people were protesting.

The number wasn't protesting, the people were.

A huge number of people attending does not necessarily make a concert profitable.

It's not the people that don't make the concert profitable, but the number.

A huge number of people were at the concert.
A huge number of people was at the concert.

Both the huge number and the people were at the concert, so my rule would let you use either verb. I would have guessed that were is usually used with "a huge number of" in situations like this, because you're usually more focused on the people rather than on the number. However, Google Ngram shows "were a large number of" and "was a large number of" are both used reasonably often. And looking at the actual instances, most fall into the case that the OP was asking about.

Ngram: was/were a large number

When you get rid of the word "large", the Ngram changes dramatically, and you discover that "were" is used most of the time with "a number of".

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Garner in his Modern American Usage (p559) states: "_ ... 'a number of' is quite correctly paired with a plural noun and a plural verb._" He then goes on to say: "The question becomes a close one when an adjective precedes 'number' ... some writers make the verb singular ... but these writers are strongly outnumbered by those who, even with the qualifying adjective, see the idiom as being 'a number of', necessitating a plural verb." –  Shoe Jun 6 '12 at 18:00
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