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Here are some sentences with 'half of' and plural nouns that I consider to be well-formed:

Half of all films are a waste of celluloid.
Half of users surveyed said they preferred the old product.
Half of the women here are your ex-girlfriends.
Half of Americans are uninsured.

Here are some sentences with 'half of' and plural nouns that don't feel well-formed to me:

Half of people are women.
Half of books are hardback.
Half of dogs are neutered.
Half of fruits are citrus.

To me, the above require 'all' before the noun or some other form of modification to sound correct or at least less awkward. (In fact, part of my problem is deciding whether these sentences sound wrong because of grammar or semantics.)

I'd appreciate either:

  1. To be told my second set of examples are actually fine (preferably with links to similar examples).
  2. A clear rule for when one can use 'half of' with a plural noun. It can't be just about modification if the 'Half of Americans' sentence is well-formed.
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    Take a look at examples in the corpus, from ngrams.googlelabs.com/… – Unreason May 31 '11 at 14:20
  • "Half of Americans are uninsured" doesn't sound right to me. – Lightness Races in Orbit May 31 '11 at 18:28
  • @Tomalak Geret'kal Thanks. Do you think that is a grammatical problem or a semantic one? – Adam Jun 1 '11 at 8:46
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    @Adam: A combination, perhaps. All the other subjects in your "well-formed" list are qualified, be it with an singular article ("the"/"a"), a whatever-you-call-it ("all"), or through a more complex construct where an article is usually in some way implied (e.g. "[the] users [that were] surveyed"). – Lightness Races in Orbit Jun 1 '11 at 9:02
  • @Tomalak Geret'kal Yes, I noticed that (thus my final sentence) and deliberately included the 'Americans' example as most people I asked considered it well-formed. Interesting to hear that you don't; there does seem to be some disagreement over my examples. – Adam Jun 1 '11 at 18:36
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You can use "half of" with plural nouns most effectively when you add the definite article:

Half of the users were women.

Half of the men were Canadian.

The reason for this is because you need to specify the group you are talking about. The definite article serves to limit the scope of the plural noun. It may require further limiting ("Half of the men studied were Canadian") but it doesn't sound awkward, because the reader or listener will presume that there is another qualifier modifying "Canadians" to which the definite article refers.

This is similar to the function performed by all and other qualifiers in your first set of examples. In that sense, in the first example you are declaring the scope to be the set that includes all films.

Half of all films are a waste of celluloid. [all provides the scope]

Half of users surveyed said they preferred the old product. [users surveyed provides the scope]

Half of the women here are your ex-girlfriends. [here provides the scope]

Half of Americans are uninsured. [Americans provides the scope, but maybe not enough].

There is no grammatical problem with saying:

Half of fruits are citrus.

It just sounds awkward, because the statement feels too general.

  • Thanks, @Robusto. Are you saying then, that the only problem with my second set of example sentences is that they are semantically unclear, rather than grammatically ill-formed? (I suspected this, but 'Half of people are women' sounds so weird that I felt it must be in error.) – Adam May 31 '11 at 14:52
  • @Adam Actually, it seems to be more of a grammar rule to use determiner with half of event with singular nouns (perfectyourenglish.com/usage/half.htm). half of your time, half of his cake and so on. – Philoto May 31 '11 at 15:07
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    +1 @Robusto: I think you've figured out the problem. When you say "Half of" with plural nouns, people expect the scope to be defined in some fashion, and it sounds wrong if it's not. For the fruits example, you can fix it by saying "Half of all fruits are citrus." For the dogs example, you can fix it by defining the scope better: Half of domestic dogs are neutered. But maybe you could call the lack of a defined scope a grammar problem. After all, Half of all fruits isn't any semantically clearer than Half of fruits. – Peter Shor May 31 '11 at 15:18
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    @PeterShor: On a side not, I believe it is said that all came from al + definite article. Cf. OE/ME gen. plur. alther, alder . – Cerberus May 31 '11 at 15:33
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    @Philoto: You could say "A book is a coherent statement; half a book is gibberish." – Robusto May 31 '11 at 18:06
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I asked Google's Ngram Viewer for the respective phrases with "them", as "them" is a strong hint that the group is defined in the context and is less restrictive otherwise (for a high number of hits).

I added traces for "a third of" amplified by 10 to compensate for "a third of" being much lower in frequency than "half of".

As expected, the plural form is much more frequent.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=a+third+of+them+is%2C+a+third+of+them+are&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Ca%20third%20of%20them%20is%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Ca%20third%20of%20them%20are%3B%2Cc0

enter image description here

  • Good answer! Could you add a screenshot of the graph too? – marcellothearcane Aug 7 at 11:47
  • I'm not sure about the relevance. OP is asking about the acceptability of 'Half of' with plural nouns. Robusto points out that using the definite article or other 'padding' ('all users', 'users surveyed') is a licensing factor. I'd add that '50% of' doesn't have the same distribution. Are you including 'Half of them' as an example? Verb agreement isn't directly asked about. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 7 at 12:44

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