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According to my instructor's notes, in situations such as

Most of that rack of paperbacks is/are trash,

where the prepositional phrase contains both a singular noun and a plural one, the choice depends on which noun the verb is really acting on. The notes say the plural is correct in this example because the sentence comments on the books, not the rack.

Another example is

Most of the box of cookies has/have been eaten.

According to the notes, have is correct because the cookies are being eaten, not the box.

This approach results in sentences that do not sound right to me. It seems to me that the singular conjugation would be correct in both examples. My reasoning is that the "of the box" is essential and can stand alone, unlike "of cookies." You could say "most of the box has been eaten," but removing "of the box" only works if you say "of the cookies" instead of "cookies." It does not make sense to say "most of cookies have been eaten." This leads me to think you should say "most of the box of cookies has been eaten," and only use the plural if you are saying "most of the cookies have been eaten." It just doesn't sound right to say "most of the box of cookies have been eaten," which immediately creates a sense of conflict between the plural have and singular box.

Additionally, the reasoning that the verb's agreement is a result of determining which noun the verb truly acts on does not work as well in some situations. For example,

The team of players is/are eating lunch.

Neither team nor players has any precedence over the other, and it makes perfect sense to say either one is eating. You cannot determine which noun the verb is really acting on.

A similar example can be found in this question. The answer says it is ultimately the writer's choice to emphasize one noun over the other.

Is this the best answer to this situation? It makes more sense than my instructor's notes, but it still seems that the singular conjugation sounds better. How is subject-verb agreement supposed to work in cases like these?

  • In your 1st example, the head of the subject NP is the fused determiner-head 'most', not plural 'paperbacks'. ‘Most’ can occur with both singular and plural partitives, but here ‘that rack’ denotes a singular item and the matrix NP 'most of that rack' denotes a singular subpart of that item; hence singular agreement is correct, (cf. ‘Most of those paperbacks are trash’, where the oblique is the plural 'those paperbacks’ and hence plural agreement is required). In your last example, singular 'team' is a collective noun where plural override is optional, so either 'is' or 'are' would be okay – BillJ Oct 20 '16 at 9:00
  • @BillJ, thank you! I assume your reasoning for the first example applies more generally. Sentences with most, such as the first and second examples are singular, while other words like those denote plural? – Zach Oct 20 '16 at 13:19
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    Yes, fused determiner-head "most" can be either singular or plural according to the partitive complement. Plural determiners like "those" occur with plural nouns, so it follows that the complement, and thus the whole NP, is also plural. So we have 'Most of the meat was eaten" and 'Most of those ideas were awful'. – BillJ Oct 20 '16 at 14:32
  • Either is correct, it is wrong to say otherwise. They have a slightly different meaning grammatically for the reason given, but in practice "Most of that rack is trash" and "Most of the books on that rack are trash" mean the same thing. – Ben Jan 5 '17 at 9:13
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Most of that rack of paperbacks is/are trash does appear ambiguous but that is only grammatical. If it is to retain its meaning the rack can and the paperbacks cannot be dropped…

Most of that rack is trash appears unambiguous but it clearly refers to the rack alone. Only prior knowledge of the context, not grammar, can reveal the meaning.

Most of the/those paperbacks are trash not only appears equally unambiguous; it clearly gives the correct meaning and no other.

The box of cookies is a slightly different can of worms since the content provides more to get the teeth into. Most of the box of cookies has/have been eaten might be grammatically identical but it doesn’t really contain the same ambiguity as the trashy rack.

Most of the box has been eaten is unlikely to be used by itself, solely because it contains “the” and not “that”

Most of that box has been eaten could stand by itself but it would still fairly clearly indicate either a mistake, or the lack of extra knowledge. It can make complete sense only if we already know that the speaker is referring to a rodent infestation or something even more odd, such as a box-eating contest.

Not to make too much of a meal of a tiny point, whether team or players are eating also makes a difference to the meaning. The team of players is eating lunch implies the whole team

The players are eating lunch quite possibly means the whole team but that’s no longer implicit. It could as easily mean any number of players more than one, however many constitute a team in whichever sport.

That niggle grows apace when we ask what actually helped the team succeed. My wide range has helped my team succeed won’t work unless, for instance, the team is of rustlers or wranglers and the coach’s home really does have a wide range where they train.

My abilities have helped my team succeed clearly does work by itself

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