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Find the mistake:

Every year, an enormous number of paper is used to produce books.

My thoughts so far:

  • After googling I found that when using "a number of" we use plural verb (i.e., are). Is that a general rule? In this sentence, paper is uncountable, so is that why we can't use "are"?

  • The book's answer indicates that we can't use "a number of" with (uncountable), so we must replace it with (an amount of / a quantity of), although in this Macmillan dictionary entry number is described as

[Countable / Uncountable ] a quantity of people or things

Is that right? If so, why?

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    Welcome to the ELU :-) - I am guessing that your book says that whatever comes after "a number of" should be countable - your Macmillan dictionary reference directs to whether number is countable. – Lucky May 24 '15 at 17:04
  • You mean that my book is right ? but I still can't understand why a number of is wrong and an amount of is right... and do we always use are after a number of ? – Hoyt Volker May 24 '15 at 17:06
  • Well, I think the new headline is better. – Hoyt Volker May 24 '15 at 17:08
  • I think that replacing a number of with a large amount of here fits the context, because it makes sense that paper here is used as raw material for books, so to speak; on the other hand if you wanted to say: 'a number of papers go over my desk every day' you can substitute uncountable paper with countable, plural papers. As for the verb you can have a look at this question – Lucky May 24 '15 at 17:15
  • Paper is uncountable and when used as countable it means "newspaper" and we don't make books from newspaper – Hoyt Volker May 24 '15 at 17:17
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First off, in your example sentence, paper is uncountable. The expression a number of can only be used with countable nouns. So, your book is right. Your options are to change from a number of to the more suitable a quantity/amount of, which can be used with uncountable nouns.


Now, about the verb:

A number of <something plural> can't be followed by is

Notice that in this Oxford entry, sense 4, it says

A plural verb is needed after a/an (large, small, etc.) number of

My guess is that since you're talking about countable things, you need to consider them all and the verb agrees with that.

  • So we will use a plural verb even if "A number of" is followed by singular , right ?, Although I didn't find in macmilan that a number of is specially for countables. Which identifiers comes before countables and which come before uncountables ? – Hoyt Volker May 24 '15 at 18:00
  • @HoytVolker: A number of CANNOT be followed by singular. Anything singular is either uncountable (in which case, go for amount) or the singular form of a countable noun, which would be wrong. You can't say 'a number of apple'; you have to say 'a number of apples' – Tushar Raj May 24 '15 at 18:04
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    @HoytVolker: the error in the sentence is not the word is. The error is the word number, that should be amount or quantity. *"a number of paper" is simply incorrect, so it is useless to discuss whether you should use a singular or plural verb. – oerkelens May 24 '15 at 18:08
  • Well, now which identifiers are followed by uncountable other than amounts and quantities ? – Hoyt Volker May 24 '15 at 18:15
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    @HoytVolker: anything that indicates an uncountable amount. Number means a countable group of items, so it cannot be followed by an uncountable noun. You can have bottles of water, bags of rice, amounts of wood, etcetera. There are many options, but number is not one of them. – oerkelens May 24 '15 at 19:21

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