Kindly, what are your thoughts on the following sentences:

  1. The maximum number of wordbooks (%d) have been saved.
  2. The maximum number of wordbooks (%d) has been saved.

My opinion is that (1) is more appropriate as "save" relates to wordbooks (a plural noun) and "The ... number" is some kind of determiner.

The dissenting opinion is that "The number" is obviously singular, and the "wordbooks" are subsidiary.

I agree that (2) is grammatically correct but I maintain it implies merely a single number was saved, not the wordbooks themselves.


1 Answer 1


As explained in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, when number of is preceded by the, it is the head (the most important word) of the phrase ‘the number of . . .’ It is singular, and so requires a singular verb.

The case is different when number of is preceded by a. Then, it is a pre-modifying element, leaving the number of the verb to determined by the number of the following head word (wordbooks in your example), which will invariably be plural.

  • Thanks for the explanation. Does anyone agree with me that 2) is incorrect in meaning, though? "A number of cars are driven daily", OK, but what about "The largest number of cars is driven daily" ?
    – Oscar
    Dec 11, 2013 at 8:05
  • @Oscar. It’s possible to make up all sorts of combinations, but we can really only draw sensible conclusions from authentic examples shown in context. For example, in what circumstances would anyone want to say The largest number of cars is driven daily rather than Most cars are driven daily? Dec 11, 2013 at 8:54
  • @Susan. Well, number of is a phrase and of is a preposition, but the / a number of might best be seen as a lexical unit performing the function of a determiner. Dec 11, 2013 at 8:55

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