In the following sentence:

The city is populated by many people.

"many" can be replaced by something like "a great number of" (let us leave the perceived differences between the meanings of these two modifiers out of discussion):

The city is populated by a great number of people.

I understand that this replacement does not change the object "populating the city" from the original "people" to a "number", but rather shows the ability of expressions in the form "[numeral] of" to provide information about the quantity of nouns they modify.

Is this ability due to some special qualities of nouns such as "number", "quantity", "fraction", &c., or is it just one usage of the preposition "of"?

  • In your second sentence, the object of by is number and people has become the object of of, so I think the premise of your question may need revisiting. – choster Aug 15 '16 at 19:03
  • @choster I understand. I thought that, if you consider a great number of as just another modifier like many, the object of populated remains the same in the two sentences: people. – hello all Aug 15 '16 at 19:08
  • What object of populated do you mean? – BillJ Aug 15 '16 at 19:16
  • 'Many' is a quantifier. So is 'a number of' (a compound, ie multi-word, quantifier). Both only premodify count nouns. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 15 '16 at 20:14
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    There are a great number of questions along this line already. – Hot Licks Aug 15 '16 at 23:10

You cannot generalize it to nouns.

You can do it with countable nouns.

You cannot put a number of before mass nouns.

A number of knowledge is wrong, even though it is a noun.


CGEL (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) has (at 3.3, p.349) a charmingly cumbrous term for terms like a lot, lots, a great deal, plenty, oodles and a number when these are used with of NOUN: it calls them “number-transparent quantificational nouns”. Let’s call them ntqns.

That is, although these terms are by syntactic form the heads of the noun phrases (NPs) ntqn of NOUN, the semantic head of the NP is taken to be the ‘oblique’, NOUN, the term which is the object of of, and it is this semantic head which governs agreement. An ntqn like “lot is number-transparent in that it allows the number of the oblique to percolate up to determine the number of the whole NP.”

In other words, semantics trumps syntax: the verb agrees with the sense rather than the form.

(Note, by the way, that ntqns are not always singular forms; the same phenomenon is observable with plural ntqns anticipating singular semantic heads:

Oodles of chocolate was provided. )

That of course merely names the phenomenon; it does not provide any sort of ‘rule’ governing what nouns can become ntqns. I'm afraid that the only ‘rule’ that's operative here is the ‘rule’ of common sense: the speaker’s commonsense notion of what she means, and the sense common to all her hearers that that’s how English actually works.

Do not conclude from this that ntqn of is somehow ‘transformed’ into a syntactic quantifier like many or some. CGEL presents (on pp.351-2) “compelling arguments” against understanding ntqn of as a constituent.

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    We get so many of these questions that I’d make a number-transparent-quantificational-nouns tag for it but for the sad circumstance that that it is too many characters in the tag. However, I’m unfamiliar with these these putatively compelling arguments for understanding these as constituents. They seem no different from pre-determiner quantifiers like “some of the” to me. I can’t tell the difference between a simple determiners like some and longer phrases like “some of the” and “a lot of the” and “a number of the” in terms of what they do to the agreement; to wit, nary a bit. – tchrist Sep 4 '16 at 19:07
  • @tchrist CGEL compels because it says so. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 8 '17 at 0:45

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