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Over on meta.stackoverflow.com, a question was raised regarding the syntax of this sentence "This is what 51,000 people looks like." To me this sounds correct. My answer on the meta question may not be right, but I swear there's a rule (or set of rules) regarding this.

In case anything gets deleted -
The question:

If you follow the link: Ten. Million. Questions. Let's celebrate all we've done together, you get to the page that says:

This is what 51,000 people looks like.

The word "people" here is not used in the singular sense, and furthermore, it is preceded by a numeral, so it must be plural. The verb "looks" should be "look".

My response:

The subject of the verb (looks) is not always the noun closest to it (people). I'm not an English expert, but I believe the subject of this sentence is the word this. In other words, replacing the middle part (is that a clause?) with is what that it becomes:

This is what that looks like.

Correct as it's written, I believe. Perhaps a good question for english.stackexchange.com!

Is a sentence like "This is what 51,000 people looks like" grammatically valid? If so, what are the rules around this?

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    I see that as meaning, This is what [a group of] 51,000 people looks like. – chasly from UK Aug 20 '15 at 21:21
  • @chaslyfromUK That's a far more succinct way of saying what I'm trying to get across! The subject in this case is "group", right? – rockerest Aug 20 '15 at 21:23
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    Perhaps it works in some dialects, but that sentence is ungrammatical to me. – Anonym Aug 20 '15 at 22:00
  • I feel the sentence is ungrammatical. 51,000 is an adjective describing people. "This is what (ADJ.) people look like." Same as "This is what Asian people look like." Replace 51,000 with "asian, chinese, african, tall, short" and the sentence still requires "look." – michael_timofeev Aug 21 '15 at 0:57
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    @chaslyfromUK you can't just plop in "a group of" to make the original sentence work. By adding "a group of" you are fixing the original ungrammatical sentence. – michael_timofeev Aug 21 '15 at 1:00
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You can't swap "51,000 people" (a plural) for "that" (a singular).

If you swapped it for a simpler pronoun instead, it stops working:

"This is what they looks [sic] like."

But it works because of the reasons in chasly's comment. You are referring to the entire crowd of 51,000 as a single entity. "This is what a crowd of 51,000 people looks like."

You could say "Here is what 51,000 people look like", but the emphasis is on what all the people look like individually, as opposed to what the crowd looks like.

  • I disagree with this answer. The real question is what function 51,000 serves in the sentence and whether people is countable or uncountable in the sentence. I feel that 51,000 is an adjective because it comes before the noun. "This is what Asian people look like." "This is what American people look like." "This is what 3 pies look like." "This is what 50 cars look like after being exposed to fire." 50 and 51,000 cannot serve double duty in the sentence and be whatever you feel they should be. – michael_timofeev Aug 21 '15 at 0:45
  • So what you're saying is that if you replace "this" with "here" things are suddenly different? As in "this is what wine looks like," and "here is what wine look like."? Can you explain this further? – michael_timofeev Aug 21 '15 at 0:48
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    Did you read my comment? What did I say about 51,000? It may be a noun in some cases "51,000 received a prize." But here it is functioning as an adjective, "this is what people look like." – michael_timofeev Aug 21 '15 at 1:44
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    It works because of collection. There is a differentiation between what the crowd looks like and what each individual person look like. "This is what 50 cars look like after being exposed to fire" brings emphasis to what the cars themselves look like. "This is what 50 cars looks like" brings emphasis to the group as a whole, the cars themselves are not important. If I said "This is what 51,000 people look like", one would expect me to follow it up with visual details about each individual person. – Seth Jeffery Aug 21 '15 at 6:15
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    It's an adjective that describes "people". "51,000 people" then functions as a single collective noun. Examples in different sentences: "Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs is boring." "The Seven Sisters is a stunning geological feature." "50 reps is my limit on the bench." "120 miles per hour is the fastest she will go." – Seth Jeffery Aug 21 '15 at 7:33

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