10

I've been having an argument with a colleague about this sentence, could you please let me know which one of us is correct:

There are no shortage of applications for our product in this space.

She is convinced that are should be replaced by is, and I think it should stand as it is. Thanks for your help!

  • You could say "there are no shortages" instead (if using the plural is somehow appropriate). – Hot Licks Nov 30 '15 at 22:26
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    This is not as simple as some would make out. 'There are a number of applications' takes the plural verb-form, whereas 'There is a lack of applications' takes the singular verb-form. Is 'no shortage of' seen as primarily a plural-requiring quantifier (there are no/some/many applications) or as a singular-requiring collective (there is a glut / a surfeit of applications)? You can check which is used by performing Google searches. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 30 '15 at 22:31
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    The one right answer to this question is that "There is" is correct. @Gabe, I'm afraid your colleague is right! Trust me. – SAH Dec 3 '15 at 17:50
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    @SAH: I don't trust you! :) A significant proportion of perfectly competent native speakers (including me, sometimes) are quite prepared to override syntactic logic in favour or semantics in contexts like this. And I'm sure if teachers (of native speakers, I mean) wasted less time railing against usages they don't like, a lot more people would communicate more fluidly left to their own devices. The basic principle of "notional concord" is well established in English, and it ain't gonna go away just because you want people to trust your judgement. – FumbleFingers Dec 5 '15 at 23:01
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    @RJH "What you're saying then, is that the subject "shortage", or "no shortage", contains the notion of number. That's exceedingly questionable." shortage n. /1. a deficiency in quantity: a shortage of cash./ /2. the amount of such deficiency./ {Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary} // I'd still go with the unitary notion here, but modelling on 'there are no end of applications' should indicate that labelling the other choice as incorrect needs more than an arrogation. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 6 '15 at 8:23
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All the answers so far miss the mark by a country mile, or are oversimplified to the point of being plain wrong.

What you are proposing here is called notional concord:

As Quirk et al. 1985 explains it, notional agreement (called notional concord by Quirk and others) is agreement of a verb with its subject or of a pronoun with its antedecent in accordance with the notion of number rather than with the presence of an overt grammatical marker for that notion. Another way to look at the matter is that of Roberts 1954, who explains that notional agreement is agreement based on meaning rather than form.

The corresponding Wikipedia entry is synesis:

Synesis [...] is effectively an agreement of words with the sense, instead of the morphosyntactic form. [...] Such use in English grammar is often called notional agreement (or notional concord), because the agreement is with the notion of what the noun means, rather than the strict grammatical form of the noun (the normative formal agreement). The term situational agreement is also found[.]

Notional agreement for collective nouns is very common in British English. It is less customary in American English, but may sometimes be found after phrases of the type "a collective noun of plural nouns", e.g.,

  • ... a multitude of elements were intertwined. (New York Review of Books)
  • ... the majority of all the shareholdings are in the hands of women. (Daedalus)
  • ... a handful of bathers were bobbing about in the waves. (Philip Roth)

Notional concord is quite common in English:

  • A lot of people are.
  • A number of cars are.
  • A variety of species are.
  • A few folks are.
  • A couple cats are.
  • A total of seven students are.

Conversely, quoting one of Edwin Ashworth's comments on this page (emphasis added):

'Piles (/oodles/truckloads/lots) of money is sent abroad each year' (quantifier; number-transparent noun rather than collective noun).

So, the question is not whether notional agreement is a thing. The question is, whether it is a thing in this one particular construction you are looking at here, "There are no shortage".

And there is no way at all to answer that question on a theoretical level, without actually looking at what native speakers actually say and write. Any answer that does not look at the reality of the language is not an answer, but mere opinion.

So, after this long-drawn-out preamble, let us look at the reality of the language, then.

Here are the actual usage stats from the British National Corpus (BNC) and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

                                   BNC    COCA

there is no shortage of [NN2]       20      96
there are no shortage of [NN2]       6       6

We can clearly see that notional agreement in this particular construction is indeed possible. So you are not wrong in saying you can keep it.

At the same time, we can clearly see that singular agreement is preferred in this particular construction, by an impressive margin in the UK, and by an order of magnitude in the US. So your colleague is not wrong in preferring it in your sentence as well.

  • Would it be fair to say, Reg that this is a combination of notional concord and expletive construction (in this case) defining the subject verb agreement? I think using both tools can help sort this stuff out in future cases...in any case +1 for notional concord. – michael_timofeev Dec 3 '15 at 13:00
  • I think the reason I mention this is because without checking the Corpus, it's hard to say which is preferred in speaking, which is why this question is so popular...certainly as a native speaker I have a pretty solid corpus but it's not always reliable. – michael_timofeev Dec 3 '15 at 13:11
  • @RJH I have no idea what you are talking about. But looking through your answer, I realize that your attempts at language present us with a choice: either reject structuralist discourse or conclude that government is capable of significance. This subject is interpolated into a textual libertarianism that includes narrativity as a totality. Therefore, any number of dematerialisms concerning the paradigm, and some would say the dialectic, of subtextual class exist. I think Derrida used the term ‘predialectic deconstruction’ to denote this, and other things. – RegDwigнt Dec 4 '15 at 9:39
  • @RJH get you across the plate...which book did you get that from? – michael_timofeev Dec 4 '15 at 12:36
  • Aren't "couple" and "few" adjectives in this case? So they're not examples of notional concord. – MiCl Dec 5 '15 at 0:56
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Sentences that begin with "There is / are" are common in English. They state the existence of things. They use what is called "expletive construction." (See this https://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/CCS_expletive.html for more information. I disagree with the website in saying that these constructions should be avoided.)

The subject of the sentence is not "there." "There" is a kind of place holder. In expletive constructions the verb agrees with the subject. So the task is to find the subject in your example sentence.

Let's take your sentence and boil it down to it's bare essentials:

There are shortage of applications.

The rest of the sentence doesn't figure into our example as it is just an adverbial adjunct.

The subject of the sentence is "shortage." "of applications" describes what kind of shortage we are talking about. It's another way of writing "application shortage." The word "no" is a determiner and doesn't factor into things. Also, are you talking about applications as in "There are no applications," or shortage as in "There is no shortage."? You're talking about a shortage. Shortage is also countable, meaning the plural is formed by adding an "s" to it: shortages. I mention this because you could be talking about shortages; something that happens often and affects business. Another user feels that shortage could be uncountable. I am not convinced of this, but if true, then there would be a valid question as to whether one should use "is" or "are." In my opinion you are talking about one shortage, and shortage is not uncountable (words such as money, bread, music, or water are uncountable, that is they do not form a plural by adding "s"--not normally, at least.)

I think at this point you can see that "There are no shortage" is not correct.

If you'd like more discussion about this see http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/oddness-when-you-start-a-sentence-with-there-is

http://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/there-is.html

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    I think to boil Gabe's sentence down while removing the negation it would be better to say "there are a shortage of applications", not "there are shortage of applications", to be fair. But generally I agree with your answer. – RJH Dec 1 '15 at 7:30
  • @RJH I thought of adding the "a" but changed my mind as it was just extra baggage that could cloud the issue. – michael_timofeev Dec 1 '15 at 7:38
  • Fair enough. But I think it actually makes the issue more salient, because it almost makes the sentence sound right, and highlights the question of why we don't treat "shortage" as a collective noun, either in the positive or negative form of the sentence. – RJH Dec 1 '15 at 7:48
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    ... And "there is shortage of applications" is not correct either. So why hide the fact that we're talking about "a shortage" or "no shortage", as the case may be? – RJH Dec 1 '15 at 9:19
  • "a lot" also has a plural form "lots," but we still say "There are a lot of applications." – sumelic Dec 4 '15 at 12:20
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I think it is 'is' because shortage is singular which comes before the applications, so it should be is.

  • Agreed. "Shortage" rules, and is singular: "There is no shortage of applications." Otherwise, you could say, "There is an abundance of applications," or "There are many applications." – user66965 Nov 30 '15 at 22:28
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    But 'number' is singular in form, and 'There are a number of ...' is correct. Over-simplistic answer. Number-transparent nouns [CGEL] must be taken into account. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 30 '15 at 22:33
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    The prepositional phrase following the subject is normally not relevant to the number of the subject when it comes to determining whether one needs a singular or a plural verb. But "number" is a special type of noun, of a sort called nouns of multitude, one type of which is the collective noun. The rule for collective nouns is this: Use a singular verb when the group is considered as a unit acting together. Use a plural verb when the individual members of the group are acting separately. Source: http://grammartips.homestead.com/number.html – Imsa Nov 30 '15 at 22:37
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    The analysis at grammartips doesn't address the transparency (or otherwise) of complex quantifiers per se. Thus 'Piles (/oodles/truckloads/lots) of money is sent abroad each year' (quantifier; number-transparent noun rather than collective noun) but 'Piles of books have been left all over the floor' (semantically weighted collective noun usage). Perhaps the most usual query is about 'the majority is or are'. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 30 '15 at 22:54
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Let's analyze your sentence. We can start by clarifying that "there" is not the real subject of the verb. It's just a dummy subject. Your real subject is "shortage".

We can also agree, surely, that "applications" is not the subject, though we can take the noun phrase "no shortage of applications" as the subject in full. In any event, the form of the verb "to be" is going to have to accord with "shortage".

With that out of the way, let's look at the word "shortage".

"Shortage" appears at first blush to be a singular noun. As such, it would take a singular verb, i.e. "is". But is there anything else to consider?

There is. Nouns classified as collective nouns can take a plural verb, in what's called notional agreement. This is because although they themselves are singular, notionally they refer to a collection of things, or a plurality. They can be thought of as containing a plurality, and because of that, they can take a plural verb form. For example:

  • a number of things are...;
  • a set of pieces are...;
  • a host of angels are....

Now, it's common advice that when the members of the plurality implied by a collective noun are considered to be acting in unison, it's appropriate to use the singular form of the verb, whereas when the members of the plurality are acting as individuals, it's appropriate to use the plural. But this would seem to be a matter of perspective.

In any event, all of this about collective nouns might be what you're getting at with your preference for the plural form of the verb, "are".

Ask yourself, though, whether "shortage" really falls into the category of collective nouns. Would it contain, notionally, any members, any "applications", within itself? Arguably not, even though it is qualified by the word "applications". This is because a shortage is a lack, a deficiency, and as such, arguably not a collection of things.

If "shortage" is not a collective noun, the verb should accord with it in its explicit form, which is singular, and not with some notional plurality implied by it, such as "applications" – because in fact it does not encompass such a plurality.

Ah, but hold everything. One could also, perhaps, conceive of "shortage" as a number of missing things, and so, in that sense, a collective of things notionally off together somewhere. Consider this phrase:

  • ... a shortage of five applications.

In this case, it becomes clearer that a "shortage" might contain a notional plurality. It's still questionable, perhaps, because the implication of "shortage" is that those applications don't actually exist.

If you do see "shortage" as collective, though, you can still ask yourself whether it justifies the use of a plural verb, because of the members acting separately, or whether a singular verb is appropriate, because of some "togetherness" of existence or action (or perhaps *non-*existence or *non-*action).

There is one more aspect to consider, and that is, even if you argue that "shortage" is a collective noun, you may have a further problem: the negative construction of your sentence, which itself denotes a lack. (With "no shortage", we have a lack of a lack, as it were, but that's neither here nor there.) I've already suggested above that it's hard to find a plurality of something in a lack of something. And absence has a certain unity that, as the subject of a sentence, seems to demand a singular verb.

Let's try some more sentences:

  • There is a shortage of applications. Some applications exist, but a shortage also exists. The shortage is a lack of applications. Seems fine.
  • There is no shortage of applications. Just the negative of the above. Some applications exist. No shortage exists. Seems okay too.
  • There are a shortage of applications. Some applications exist, but a shortage also exist(s). Isn't the shortage some kind of entity that exists outside of the existing applications, though? The shortage relates to applications, but does it contain any applications? Is it a plurality, or, in its manifestation of lack, is it a unity? If a plurality, are its supposed members acting in unison, or individually on their own, in performing their absence?
  • There are no shortage of applications. All required applications exist. No shortage exist(s). Is the shortage a unity, or a plurality? Does it make sense to say are the shortage a unity or a plurality? Is anything contained by the shortage? Are any applications contained by it? (Does it even, notionally, exist?!)

Some things for you to ponder.

RegDwigнt's answer gives corpus usage stats, which may suggest a direction of inquiry, but are, in the end, of little use for one's own conceptualization of the language issue under examination. For what it's worth, my own search of the same two corpora found "there is no shortage of" outnumbering "there are no shortage of" 217:8 in the US and 63:0 in Britain, so you might want to learn how to use the corpora yourself to see if the numbers are reliable. But all we get from the usage stats anyway is that some people have said the phrase one way, and some have said it another. We don't know if they put any thought into it, or if the ostensible "pluralists" simply misidentified the subject of their verb. (Which suggests that perhaps RegDwigнt's answer is oversimplified, to quote a certain brash assertion therein.)

In other words, to come to terms with the sentence at hand, some direct and explicit analysis of the particular words in question is useful.

In my view, three obstacles to the plural verb form are:

  1. Treating "shortage" as collective is a questionable choice, given that it can hardly be considered to contain any notional members.
  2. If it is collective, the unified action or existence of its notional members may justify the singular verb anyway.
  3. The negative construction of the sentence denotes an absence that may itself justify treatment of the subject as a unity, i.e. as singular.

On the other hand:

  1. The counterpoint to 1 is a shortage of five applications.
  2. The counterpoint to 2 is that it may be a matter of perspective in any event.
  3. The counterpoint to 3 is in a comment by Edwin Ashworth that I reproduce below*.

Some further points:

  • "There is" is commonly used, at least colloquially, when "there are" might seem appropriate based on the real subject of the sentence, particularly in contracted form, as FumbleFingers points out*.
  • And as FumbleFingers also points out*, in a complementary comment to Edwin Ashworth's about lack (both of which I may do better justice to in a further edit at a later date, but in any event are currently copied below for your analytical pleasure), either one can be part of a stock phrase referring to the noun considered most important in the sentence. In your sentence this could lead to an accord between the verb "are" and the word "applications". Arguably, though, this would just be a case of failure to identify the real the subject of the sentence.
  • The above could affect the stats of any usage survey. Without looking into it, so could the fact that we don't know whether a mass noun or a plural noun comes after "there is no shortage of" in any particular item contained in the results (e.g. there is no shortage of water).

In the end, my own preference is for "there is a shortage of applications" and "there is no shortage of applications". And I think that's what I'd say when caught off guard and not given the chance to think about it.

In any event, you can probably treat a shortage as notionally plural without a second thought when you're talking about a shortage of dwarves (but perhaps not if you're saying there is no shortage of dwarves).


* In the event that I don't get around to a cleanup for a while, I've copied here the astute comments I refer to above, lest they disappear:

  • @RJH 'The majority of the population remain unconvinced' is an accepted coding of '42 763 785 (say) people in the country remain unconvinced'. I've found plenty of internet examples of the form 'There are no lack of restaurants in the area' coding for 'there are ample ...'. And 'shortage' and 'lack' are pretty close. Though yes, I'd use 'is' here. – Edwin Ashworth

  • I think you're starting off on the wrong foot with your very first paragraph. Bear in mind that (contracted) there's is commonly used to replace there are as well as there is. By summarily dismissing the significance (and thus, influence) of the dummy pronoun there you're ignoring one of the reasons why people don't always "talk proper". – FumbleFingers

  • @RJH: There are no shortage of examples of people having such notions. Forget the plurality of "shortage" - the sequence there is/are no shortage is pretty much a stock phrase/cliche where the important noun is the thing which there is/are plenty of. In this case, the plural countable noun applications. Obviously not everyone thinks that way (and those that do probably don't do it on every possible occasion). But it occurs reasonably often, and it certainly doesn't grate on my ears. – FumbleFingers

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    I think you're starting off on the wrong foot with your very first paragraph. Bear in mind that (contracted) There's is commonly used to replace there are as well as there is. By summarily dismissing the significance (and thus, influence) of the dummy pronoun there you're ignoring one of the reasons why people don't always "talk proper". – FumbleFingers Dec 6 '15 at 2:44
  • @FumbleFingers – Yes! Getting to that in a new edit. – RJH Dec 6 '15 at 3:01
  • @FumbleFingers – I wouldn't call it wrong-footed, per se, to to identify the real subject. It has to be part of the analysis. But you're right that the dummy pronoun cannot be summarily dismissed in the overall discussion. I've included a reference to your comments. I'll probably leave it alone for a while now, but may come back to fix it up to my satisfaction later. :-) – RJH Dec 6 '15 at 3:38
  • I don't generally care much for Is this correct? questions on ELU (if you don't know what you can get away with in English, you should be asking on ELL). But your answer (like @Reg's) now steers more towards addressing the far more interesting question of why some (perfectly articulate) native speakers sometimes override/ignore what grammarians and logicians would unfailingly think in constructions like the one under consideration. I hope you'll come back and polish it up some more, but in the meantime I've upvoted for "heading in the right direction". :) – FumbleFingers Dec 6 '15 at 16:22
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In general usage, with the negative construction, it would nearly always be "is"—"There is no bucket of gold coins buried in the garden." But also: "There is a bucket of gold coins buried somewhere in the garden." However this can have both: "There is no set of questions that are always asked at the airport."

With majority however, common usage would be: "A majority of the players are from Nebraska." (in the sense of "most of the players are ...").

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    I was surprised of the usage concerning "a majority of" and I compared the frequencies of "a majority of persons/them are" vs "a majority of persons/them is" with Ngram. You were perfectly right: the common usage is "are" (and not "is"). – Graffito Dec 1 '15 at 0:08
  • This sort of logic-chopping doesn't really get us far. In There are a lot of gold coins buried somewhere, for example, it "should" be pretty obvious that a lot is singular (we don't expect a plurals after the indefinite article! :) But we always make the verb agree with whatever there is/are a lot of, not the "lot" itself. Also, there are some contexts where both the "logical" and the "semantic" plurality are exceptionally difficult to even identify. – FumbleFingers Dec 6 '15 at 2:57

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