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I'm trying to decide which of the following sentences is best grammatically:

A page of multiplication problems sit in front of me.

Or

A page of multiplication problems sits in front of me.

In this sentence both make sense to me. However if you change the middle of the sentence "A ... [sit|sits] in front of me" it becomes clear there are some sentences where only one works.

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  • It's a page that sits in front of you. "of multiplication problems" qualifies what the page is about but does not change the number of pages. In general, the "pluralness" of the subject should not change when you remove any adjectives or prepositional phrases.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 20, 2015 at 4:02

2 Answers 2

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A page of multiplication problems sits in front of me.

The subject of your sentence is 'page'. What type of page? A page of multiplication problems. Still, the subject is 'page', which is singular.

To agree with the singular subject 'page', the verb 'to sit' must be conjugated as 'sits'.

The reason 'sit' sounds correct to you is its close proximity to 'multiplication problems', a plural noun. Don't let that confuse you. The subject is 'page'. Whether it's a page of multiplication problems or a page of recycled peanut butter the subject 'page' remains singular and thus the conjugation of 'to sit' as 'sits' remains unchanged.

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  • A whole lexicon of linguists disagree that the plural is not possible after collective forms like this. Jan 20, 2015 at 9:11
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Did you coin that term? (a lexicon of linguists) Jan 20, 2015 at 13:36
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    @Araucaria Yeah, I couldn't think of a better term of venery for us. :-p Jan 20, 2015 at 13:39
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You're quite right that both are perfectly valid and make sense.

Page can be seen here as a collective noun (a word that describes a group, category, or other type of measurement applied to a following noun phrase). The most common pattern with collective nouns is that in cases like

a [collection] of [things]

– verbal agreement can be based on the plurality of either the collective noun or the noun ‘measured’.

When the verb agrees with the collective noun, the sense is that the subject is perceived as a single unit:

A pack of cigarettes is lighter than a tennis ball.

Here, we're interested in the weight of the pack as a whole, not the individual cigarettes.

When the verb agrees with the noun being ‘measured’, the focus is on the individuality and plurality of that noun:

A pack of wolves make their way through the woods, sniffing out their prey.

Here, the focus is on each individual wolf acting individually. The pack is not just one thing, it's so many individual things acting more or less in unison.

In your example, both versions are equally plausible:

A page of multiplication problems sits before me.

– means that there is a page in front of you. That page is filled with multiplication problems.

A page of multiplication problems sit before me.

– means that some multiplication problems (individual, different ones) sit in front of you, and they are collected on a page.

There are some collective nouns where only one type of verbal agreement is possible. For example, using a lot of [things] with singular agreement is highly unusual except when lot means ‘shipment, consignment’. Your example, however, is not one of these.

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