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In Microsoft Word, the following sentence is flagged. It tells me to use "was" instead of "were"

There were half a dozen books strewn about the floor.

I would think that you would use "were" since it's a quantity more than one. You wouldn't say, "There was twelve books strewn about the floor." Does the use of the "half" modify it somehow?

Thank you.

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13  
Microsoft Word grammar check is less than perfect. –  Henry Aug 7 '12 at 18:35
    
Ditto Henry. While a grammar flag from Word is worth investigating, don't take them too seriously. Once once of my kids got a homework paper where she was supposed to identify the grammar errors in a collection of sentences. Just for fun I typed the quiz into MS Word. It got under 60% right. Failing grade. –  Jay Aug 7 '12 at 20:45
    
An answer to question 64581 tries to vet "A half of all pensioners [are/??is] living below...". An answer to question 69546 that mentions number-transparent quantificational nouns probably answers definitively. Question #27955 and answer use "half ... are" without comment. –  jwpat7 Aug 8 '12 at 6:26

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Formally speaking, the Word grammar checker is right. The subject of there were is the word half, which is singular. So under formal grammar the sentence should be:

There was half a dozen books on the floor.

However, many people find this sentence to be odd in practice, since English speakers often prefer "semantic number agreement", in which the effective plurality of a phrase is determined by its meaning and not the grammatical number of its head. Therefore, for many registers people prefer your original example:

There were half a dozen books on the floor.

If you're writing something formal and can't abide to say there was half a dozen, then rephrase the sentence to avoid phrases like half a dozen.

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2  
Isn't the subject books, and "half a dozen" could be seen as an adjectival phrase? –  Jez Aug 7 '12 at 18:49
    
@Jez, I believe that the grammatical analysis is half [of] a dozen books, with of being elided normally. Under that analysis, half is clearly the subject. –  JSBձոգչ Aug 7 '12 at 18:53
5  
I personally think that's the wrong analysis. "half a dozen" is a quantifying adjective phrase, it should not be split the other way. –  Hellion Aug 7 '12 at 18:59
5  
There were (five) (a hundred) (a googol) (a dozen) (half a dozen) books on the floor. These are all the same construction. –  Mark Beadles Aug 7 '12 at 19:52
    
I respectively disagree. It is incorrect to say that there *was half a dozen books on the floor. Please see my answer. –  tchrist Oct 3 '12 at 19:47

It is throwing that because of the grammatical number of half. You are correct that were should be used—the grammar checker isn't smart enough to detect this.

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I’m sorry, but I believe the accepted answer is wrong.

The “half (of) a NUMBER construct works like “a lot of SOMETHING or “a few of SOMETHING does, in that the verb should agree with the number of the noun that follows those constructs, not with something like half or lot or few, even though each of those is by itself nominally singular.

This is what is called a predeterminer, and it does not affect the grammatical concordance of the noun it modifies with that noun’s verb. In works like an adjectival phrase, if you would. From Cognitive English Grammar, by Günter Radden and René Dirven:

More rarely, a quantifier occurs before a determiner; in this function quantifiers are usually described as predeterminers. . . . More rarely, a quantifier may precede an indefinite determiner as in half a dozen or half a million, where the quantifier half describes a clear subset of a well-defined set.

You can find no end of examples in examples of such things retaining their plural number in printed literature, and none of them becoming singular. Here are just a few:

  • Yet not a hundred people in that battle knew for what they fought, or why; not a hundred of the inconsiderate rejoicers in the victory, why they rejoiced. Not half a hundred people were the better for the gain or loss. Not half–a–dozen men agree to this hour on the cause of merits. . . . [Dickens]
  • Here were half a hundred boys not looking for favors or tips at this season of the year when the average individual is inclined to be generous, but half a hundred boys who were out the help others. . . . [Boys’ Life]
  • A million cascade brooks unite to form a thousand torrent creeks ; a thousand torrent creeks unite to form half a hundred rivers beset with cataracts ; half a hundred roaring rivers unite to form the Colorado, which rolls, a mad, turbid stream, into the Gulf of Colorado [Powell]
  • The half a hundred houses of the big village were dark. [O Henry]
  • A further half-a-million Germans were deported in WWII from their age- old home in the Volga region. . . . [Central Asia]
  • YES, over half a million delighted men and women all over the world have learned music this quick, easy way. [Popular Mechanics]
  • Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, [Quote It Completely!: World Reference Guide to More Than 5,500 Memorable ...]
  • Half a dozen women were setting tables for the evening supper; half a dozen more were busy in the kitchen. . . . [Boys’ Life]
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Readers and posters here seem to be concerned with whether predeterminer half used with a plural Noun Phrase should be regarded as singular or plural.I thought some hard talking facts might be in order to resolve this issue.

A Google search for:

"over half the people was"

... with the phrase in quotation marks as in the example, returned a staggering three hits! Two of these were along the lines of "the average age of over half the people was 2.14..." So that reduces it to one valid hit of the type with which we're concerned here.

On the other hand the same search for:

"over half the people were"

... gives a return of 245, 000 results. Now on the basis that grammar is what people actually do when they speak, this means that Over half the people were is 245,000,000 % more likely to be grammatical than Over half the people is.

If further evidence is required, the number of instances of Over half the people were from Google books is 2,100. The number of instances of Over half the people was, surprisingly, is 1. However, this single example on close inspection turns out to be in the form of the following:

The standard of living for over half the people was beneath what would have been considered enough for an animal in France or England.

Here the subject of was is the non-countable Noun Phrase standard of living. This reassuringly puts the number of published examples of Over half the people was - specifically of the type we're after - at zero.

So purely on an empirical basis, we can discard any notion of Over half the people grammatically occurring with a singular verb form! Full stop. Over and out!

[However, there is an interesting side story here because of the the existential sentence in the OP's question. It used to be, and to a certain extent still is, common to find existential "there was" used with a following plural Noun Phrase. Thousand upon thousand of such examples are to be found in print and even in scholarly works.]

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1  
See, this is that same problem. When you have a half dozen books, the head is still books and plural; it doesn’t become half and singular. It’s an error of analysis, and it is made by many, including the hundred trillion monkeys who cranked out Microsoft Word’s grammar checker. But as you point out, it just doesn’t happen in real life because native speakers intuitively know better without realizing why. I don’t know a good tag to umbrella the problem-space with. –  tchrist 12 hours ago

To say it in short form - You can agree the verb form with half, that's more a grammatical agreement, and you can agree it with books, that's a more logical agreement. And people prefer the logical agreement.

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