Does the subject a combination of government initiatives take singular or plural agreement?

A combination of government initiatives has resulted in positive changes?


A combination of government initiatives have resulted in positive changes?

Which is correct?

  • Possible duplicate of Is "group" singular or plural? – curiousdannii Mar 29 '16 at 3:53
  • The key question to ask yourself in deciding on a suitable verb here is whether the combination (that is to say, the combining) has resulted in positive changes or whether the initiatives have resulted in positive changes—or if both statements are true, which one is more significant. It's a matter of emphasis, which you convey by your verb choice. – Sven Yargs Apr 3 '16 at 4:21
  • ...For instance, if you said, "A combination of things has/have helped me succeed," I would be inclined to take the vagueness of things as implying that you weren't focused on a particular combination but were instead emphasizing the multiplicity of the unnamed things. Hence, I would expect the wording to be "A combination of things have helped me succeed." But if you said, "A combination of diligence and sheer luck has/have helped me succeed," I would take the combination, in all its fragility, to be the focus of attention, and as a result I'd tend to see has as the likelier verb choice. – Sven Yargs Apr 3 '16 at 4:34

The answers so far are oversimplified, arguably 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"[.]

That bears repeating. Notional concord is quite common in English:

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

Conversely, you can have things such as "lots/piles/truckloads of money is".

So, the question is not whether notional agreement is a thing. The question is, whether it is a thing in this particular construction you are looking at, "a combination of [Xs]".

And there is no way at all to answer that question on a theoretical level, without 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:

From these you can clearly see two things:

  1. In American English, notional agreement in this particular construction is possible, and common. However, it is less common than singular concord.
  2. In British English, notional agreement in this construction is unheard of.

In conclusion, if you want to be on the safe side, use the singular.

  • Nice. I assume that you said "arguably" for politeness. – deadrat Mar 29 '16 at 3:53
  • @RegDwigнt So opinions can't be answers? I do get your point--I'm generally a descriptivist myself--but is there no room for prescriptivist opinion at all? Many responses on this forum prescribe without providing descriptive evidence. Are you being prescriptive in your descriptivism? – Yeltommo Oct 17 '18 at 13:08

The correct verb form is "has." It refers to "combination," a singular noun, and not "government initiatives."


In the sentence you are shaping, this thing [singular] has done a thing (or has had a thing done to it).

A combination of government initiatives has resulted in positive changes.

A tray of teacups has fallen to the floor.

A bucketful of uranium capsules has mysteriously started singing to us.

It would be plural if you wanted to say:

Several combinations of government initiatives have resulted in positive changes.

  • 1
    A lot of students has a car. A few of them even has two cars. Got it! Thanks a lot! – RegDwigнt Mar 29 '16 at 1:02
  • 1
    @RegDwigнt: But those are different sentences! This post starts out by saying it is giving advice for the original poster's specific sentence, and then goes on to provides some examples of other sentences with parallel structure. It's true this answer could be improved by mention of tricky sentences that look similar but have different grammar, such as the ones you mention or "Lots of water is running across the floor." – herisson Mar 29 '16 at 1:09
  • @RegDwigнt Cheers, Elton. I thought we were doing usage and responding to specifics. All the same, you have a point. We shouldn't make it seem over-simple, so let's offer, 'A lot of students had a car, until it fell in the sea.' – Captain Cranium Mar 29 '16 at 1:11
  • 2
    @sumelic: right on, those are different sentences. Whether a tray is singular has nothing whatsoever to do with whether a combination is. Exactly right. – RegDwigнt Mar 29 '16 at 1:20
  • @Captain yes, we are doing usage and responding to specifics. The way we typically go about that is something along the lines of my answer. Check it out. Use it as a template, if you wish. This kind of questions comes up quite often. – RegDwigнt Mar 29 '16 at 1:23

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