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Which one is the correct one?

  1. A total of 10 babies is sleeping. (A)
  2. A total of 10 babies are sleeping. (B)
  3. Ten babies in total are sleeping. (C)

For me, both (A) and (C) are correct. But (B) is also used in speech.

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9  
I'd vote for B and C. The first one is just wrong. –  Robusto Jan 12 '11 at 2:01
    
@Robusto: "There is a total of ten babies" v.s. "There are a total of ten babies", which one is the correct one? –  xport Jan 12 '11 at 2:03
    
I would recast the sentence and skirt the issue. :) But "There is a total of ten babies" is correct. –  Robusto Jan 12 '11 at 2:04
    
Hmm, interesting. –  Jimi Oke Jan 12 '11 at 4:08
4  
@xport: You can say "There is a total", because there it's the total that's doing the "being" (although as @Kosmonaut notes "there are a total of ten babies" works too, because the babies are also "being"!). "A total of ten babies are sleeping", because there the babies are doing the sleeping, definitely not the total! In English it's the number of the (sometimes implied) semantic subject that determines the verb agreement, whereas in other languages it's the grammatical subject. See @Cerberus's answer for more details on the general rule :) –  psmears Jan 12 '11 at 15:27
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3 Answers

up vote 20 down vote accepted

(B) is perfectly correct in either American or British English. Take a look at this example from the Cambridge Dictionaries Online:

A total of 21 horses were entered for the race.

(C) is also correct, as ten babies is explicitly plural, and should thus take the plural are.

(A) is not correct because the collective noun total should always be treated in the plural sense when

  1. it is explicitly used with the word, number, or the word, number, is implied (in a strict sense*),
  2. the items being counted are identified/clarified/specified, AND
  3. the size of the number is given.

In the following examples, all conditions are satisfied:

  • A total of number of 3500 students were at the seminar. [Plural]
  • A total [number] of 11 shells are in my possession. [Plural]

In this example, conditions (1) and (2) are satisfied, but condition (3) isn't:

  • The total number of students in attendance was unbelievably large. [Singular]

In the first sentence of this example, only condition (3) is satisfied, while none of the conditions is satisfied in the second sentence:

  • My total is 11. Theirs is much higher. [Singular]

Finally, in this case, condition (1) is not satisfied:

  • 'How many pennies do we now have?' 'The current total is 22.' [Singular]

Thus, total should be treated as singular whenever these conditions are not satisfied at the same time. (This rule should not be applied with the construction There is/are.)

The agreement between nouns (collective, in this case) and verbs is called concord and much has been published on its often confusing rules of usage. The most interesting and informative article I found in the course of answering this question, was "Concord", by Marianne Drennan. (It is of South African origin, so it is likely closer to British English but, excellent article nonetheless.)

Also of note is the pronounced difference in the treatment of collective nouns between British and American English. Some collective nouns are mostly treated as singular in American English but often considered plural in British English. Two quick examples are team and family. See this note on grammar at Oxford Dictionaries Online for more information on this phenomenon. The treatment of total, however, transcends this analysis for the most part. Consider, however, another interesting example provided, in part, by the asker (@xport):

  • There are ten babies. [Universally correct]
  • There are ten babies in total. [Universally correct]
  • There are a total of ten babies. [Plural. British?]
  • There is a total of ten babies. [Singular. American?]

I'm not sure if the British/American analysis holds here, as one would find both forms (there is/there are) widely used. There are certainly sounds better, but some would argue that there is is more correct, because, strictly speaking, total by itself should be a singular noun. ("Says who?" others may counter!) Consider this, though:

There is/are a total number of ten babies. [?!]

I will not comment on this. Suffice it to say that this worrisome situation can always be avoided.


*in a strict sense since the word, total, always involves a number, anyway. Try to see if you can insert the word number into your sentence (if it isn't already there) without losing the intended meaning. If this can be done, then it means the word, number is implied.

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@Jimi: Thanks for the detailed answer. Can a word "total" stand without "a"? (example: "There are total of 12 pens.") –  xport Jan 12 '11 at 3:57
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@xport: You're welcome. When used within a proper sentence, the noun total is always preceded by an article (a/the), pronoun (their/his, etc) or preposition (in). Thus, "There are total of 12 pens" is incorrect without the indefinite article a. –  Jimi Oke Jan 12 '11 at 4:04
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@Jimi: is part of the distinction the semantic fact that in the OP’s example, it is the babies who are sleeping, not the total, whereas in “a total of ten gold badges is rather impressive”, it is the total that is impressive, not the individual badges? –  PLL Jan 12 '11 at 4:05
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Meh, I have no choice but to upvote my competitor. Well said. +1 –  Cerberus Jan 12 '11 at 4:09
    
@xport: Interesting example: "There is/are". I'll edit my answer... –  Jimi Oke Jan 12 '11 at 4:11
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In England, B is normally the preferred choice (including Fowler's, whom I do not have with me to quote from); in America, it would also be B, though a singular verb would be used with some other nouns of multitude. Construction C is always right.

This usage (B) is called synesis (Greek), constructio ad sententiam (Latin, the term I prefer), constructio ad sensum (Latin), notational agreement, or situational agreement.

It means that a singular noun can take a plural verb if it refers to several things in the real world. This exists in many languages under various conditions, including English, Dutch, Latin, and Greek. It also applies to choosing the right pronoun, such as its versus their. In general it happens only when this reference to more than one thing is intended:

  1. The police have arrested a man—the writer has in his mind the image of several policemen holding a man.

  2. The police is the first institution that we should try to reform—the writer has the whole institution in mind.

In practice, situations where such a noun refers to several things are much more common than those in which it refers to a single, whole thing.

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2  
Yes. In English the verb is singular or plural according to whether the action is considered by the speaker to be carried out by one or multiple entities, not by whether the noun employed is grammatically singular or plural. So, to take one example, talking about British politics one could say "The cabinet is divided" (one entity - the group - is split), but "The cabinet are in agreement" (all the individuals agree). Also consider the difference in meaning between "My family is big" (it contains a lot of people), and "My family are big" (each of them is larger than average) :-) –  psmears Jan 12 '11 at 15:25
    
@Psmears: Ha, especially this family is a great example. –  Cerberus Jan 12 '11 at 21:29
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A total of 10 babies is sleeping. The subject in this sentence is "total." The verb is "is." The subject and verb must be in agreement. Both are singular. Babies is the object of the prepositional phrase "of 10 babies," and is not the subject. If the sentence read "Ten babies are sleeping," then the verb would be "are," because "are" is plural and in agreement with the plural subject "babies."

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2  
I'm sorry, but this isn't right. The verb for "a total of" can be either singular or plural, depending on which noun is performing the action. In this case, the "total" is not sleeping; it is the "ten babies" who are sleeping, so you use the singular. In the sentence "A total of ten babies is the largest born on a single day in this hospital", you would need to use the verb "is" because here the "total" is large and not the "ten babies". In English, a number of constructions behave this way. –  Peter Shor Feb 3 '12 at 22:07
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