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In the expression hundreds of <noun>(s), I would think that hundreds is what's being modified because of is usually right-branching:

hundreds<-{of <noun>(s)}

(This is in contrast to X hundred <noun>s, in which X hundred is clearly the modifier, and hence the plural.)

If so, I can't see any reason (apart from overwhelming usage, of course!) why <noun> must be plural. To me, the idea expressed seems to be a multiplication of some sort:

X00 * abstract instance of <noun>

(This would then be similar to the formal "There are two kinds of person.")

Is the singular archaic, and did we somewhere along the way begin thinking more along the lines of {hundreds of}-><noun>s than hundreds<-{of <noun>}, or am I completely off?

Evidence from Google Books:

I have asked many hundreds of person of all classes respecting their own places of residence. (1843)

... there was every reason to suppose that an epidemic would be certain to lay claim to hundreds of victim. (1869)

The officers of Police could point to hundreds of person who lived solely by picking pockets and other selonious acts ... (1792)

I have traveled hundreds of mile by rail, buggy, lumber wagon, and on foot. (1889)

For hundreds of year it was the coronation site and burial ground of Polish monarchs, saints, and national heroes. (2010)

  • 1
    You seem to be very good at finding typos in the Google Books corpus. But this seems to have always been incorrect. See Google Ngrams. It's possible that "year" and "mile" are exceptions in some dialects. – Peter Shor Aug 8 '14 at 19:38
  • Look closely at your quote for "hundreds of victim". It is really "hundreds of victim●", and I think the blot was probably originally an "s". Your "hundreds of person" is definitely a typo. – Peter Shor Aug 8 '14 at 19:45
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    On the other hand, I do find a remarkable number (although still a small minority) of non-apocryphal instances of "hundreds of mile" and "hundreds of year", which I would interpret as meaning that these were grammatical in some English dialect (note that mile and year are both units). – Peter Shor Aug 8 '14 at 19:48
  • @PeterShor You are right. My bad for not looking more closely at the print. I've swapped out those quotes for others and added links. I've also included your mile example. Nice find! – ephemeralist Aug 8 '14 at 20:01
  • hundreds of person sounds wrong to me, it would normally be hundreds of people. – Barmar Aug 8 '14 at 20:30
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Phrases of the form collective noun of form the same grammatical role as a specific number. So the parallel is:

  • 500 nouns
  • hundreds of nouns
  • bunches of nouns

The word before of is not being modified, the collective or number quantifies the noun.

  • I agree this is how we seem to now think about expressions of this type. But that's why I think the question is interesting. Elsewhere, of strongly marks that the preceeding word is being modified: subsets of X, multiples of 5, two of us, four of a kind – ephemeralist Aug 8 '14 at 21:15
  • two of us modifies us -- it tells how many there are in us. subsets of X could be viewed either way: the subsets are only composed from X, or X is being broken into subsets. – Barmar Aug 8 '14 at 21:35
  • The simple fact is that the preposition of is used in many different ways. I looked in some dictionary definitions, and none of them seemed to encompass this common use. I was quite surprised. – Barmar Aug 8 '14 at 21:36

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