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The following quotes all seem to contain agreement errors between their subjects and predicates:

A total of five youths were arrested in both incidents.

Shouldn't it be "A total . . . was"? The sense is plural overall, but the subject is the singular "total." The object of the preposition is "five youths." Nonetheless, the verb should be the singular "was," agreed?

Early returns from rural areas indicated that support from the Communists remain strong.

Shouldn't it be ". . . support . . . remains strong"?

A group of neighborhood volunteers are identifying these houses and forcing owners to fix them up or tear them down.

Shouldn't it be "A group . . . is"?

The council's actions, concluding more than six hours of testimony on the matter, effectively nullifies a city hearings officer's decision.

Shouldn't it be "The council's actions . . . nullify"?

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  • This question appears to be off-topic because the OP shows a clear understanding of subject-verb agreement. It appears to be a peeve. – anongoodnurse Feb 13 '14 at 14:53
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    Not off-topic because I was unsure whether I was correct or not. I presented my analysis and reasoning—and you confirmed as correct. – whippoorwill Feb 13 '14 at 14:56
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    What appears to be ‘a peeve’? – whippoorwill Feb 13 '14 at 14:57
  • This is a duplicate of the question linked to by Andrew; but it is also noteworthy that the second and fourth examples are not examples of notional agreement: they’re just plain wrong. There is no notional plurality in #2, apart from the Communists (and they’re not what remains strong: the support is), nor a notional singular in #4, except for the council and the testimony (and they’re not what nullify: the actions are). Those two are presumably either typos, something written by a non-native speaker, or cases of someone inserting a parenthetical phrase and forgetting the original subject. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 16 '14 at 16:44
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You raise some good points. But the site has discussed this issue of subject-verb agreement many times in the past. A strong view, and the one by which I abide, is that with these collective-noun phrases, you need to do what sounds right.

For example, I would probably say, as would many people, 'A total of five youths were arrested...' It is not technically precise, but it sounds better (in my view).

But I might say 'A group of five people was stopped by the police...' I am not sure why one sounds singular and the other plural. perhaps it is just because 'a total of' does not indicate a clear unit of something.

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    We were all wrong on the first and third one. CMOS 16 says this: If a definite article (the) precedes, the mass noun controls, and typically a singular verb is used {the quantity of pizzas ordered this year has increased}. A "total" wasn't arrested; five youths were. If an indefinite article (a or an) precedes, then the number of the noun in the prepositional phrase controls {a small percentage of the test takers have failed the exam}. A "total" wasn't arrested; five youths were arrested. – whippoorwill Feb 13 '14 at 15:13
  • This has also been raised before, but it is "not technically precise" only if a priori, you assume a specific model of how agreement works, despite this model contradicting the actual available data. If you don't make that a priori assumption, then the technical precision problem goes away... – Neil Coffey Feb 13 '14 at 19:41
  • Could you put that in layman's terms and provide ancillary elucidation? – whippoorwill Feb 13 '14 at 22:00
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    If a total of five youths were arrested, chances are they were arrested individually, at different times, in different places. If a group of five people is stopped by the police, there is only one stopping: the whole group is stopped as one, in one go. If you leave out the non-essential, you could say, “A group was stopped by the police”, but you would never say, “A total was arrested”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 16 '14 at 16:42
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We were all wrong on the first and third one. CMOS 16 says this: If a definite article (the) precedes, the mass noun controls, and typically a singular verb is used {the quantity of pizzas ordered this year has increased}. A "total" wasn't arrested; five youths were.

If an indefinite article (a or an) precedes, then the number of the noun in the prepositional phrase controls {a small percentage of the test takers have failed the exam}. A "total" wasn't arrested; five youths were arrested. A "group" isn't identifying; the neighborhood volunteers are identifying. This is Chicago's rule.

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  • +1 for providing info from a source (even if it is from a style guide). :) – F.E. Feb 13 '14 at 21:36
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One way to decide cases like this—for the construction a [collective noun] of [members]—is to ask which noun is performing the action of the verb. Here I show how this works on your examples.

A total of five youths were arrested in both incidents.

Were the youths arrested, or was the total arrested? The youths were arrested, so it should be were.

Early returns from rural areas indicated that support from the Communists remain strong.

This isn't a construction a [collective noun] of [members]. The subject is support, so it should be remains.

A group of neighborhood volunteers are identifying these houses and forcing owners to fix them up or tear them down.

Is the group identifying the houses, or are the volunteers? Both are, so either verb works.

The council's actions, concluding more than six hours of testimony on the matter, effectively nullifies a city hearings officer's decision.

In this case, both the council and the actions nullify the decision. However possessives with apostrophes don't work like the construction a [collective noun] of [members]. In this case you have to use the noun actions, so it should be nullify.

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