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Which is grammatically correct? (And why?)

  • (a) "There are an odd number of items in the box."
  • (b) "There is an odd number of items in the box."

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, TrevorD, Skooba, jimm101, curiousdannii Mar 17 '17 at 0:58

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    Closely related: A number of questions “has been” or “have been” asked? I don't know if the presence of "odd" would make any difference. – sumelic Mar 15 '17 at 20:31
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    @sumelic Based on that, we would say "are" is the correct one to use. – Pistos Mar 15 '17 at 20:38
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    The presence of odd doesn't make any difference to me. Singular agreement is equally jarring to me in both cases. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 15 '17 at 20:39
  • What @Janus said. A number is a number, regardless of whether it's "odd" or not. And I can't be doing with A number are a number. – FumbleFingers Mar 15 '17 at 20:46
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    The trouble here is that 'There are a number of ...' surely pragmatically entails four or above. But a mathematician might say 'There is/are an odd number of items in the box. One, to be precise.' – Edwin Ashworth Mar 15 '17 at 21:41

It depends on the focus of your interest...

An odd number of socks means that one sock at least has gone missing.

An odd number of socks have ended up in my sock drawer.


You want the verb to agree with "number," not "items," so the answer is (b).

It helps to turn the sentence around. "An odd number [of items] is in the box."

Number is actually the subject of the sentence, whereas "items" is the object of a preposition and does not get to determine whether verb is single or plural, "is" or "are."

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    Following that thinking, we should say "A lot of items is in the box"... ? – Pistos Mar 15 '17 at 20:56
  • Ah, now we're into the world of collective nouns! Is it "the family is crazy" or "the family are crazy"? "The jury are out" or "The jury is out"? "Lot" can be singular, as in an auction, or plural. The presence of a plural noun (items) wants to push it toward plural, but my point is to remember that the subject of the sentence, not a prepositional object, determines the tense of the verb. – Chas S. Clifton Mar 15 '17 at 21:01
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    @ChasS.Clifton That's not collective nouns as such. Certain quantifies (a lot of, a number of, a host of, a group of, etc.) generally take plural agreement despite being morphologically singular. An odd number of is one of those. To me (and many others) “There is an odd number of items is in the box” and “An odd number of items is in the box” are both highly jarring. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 15 '17 at 21:06
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    As @tchrist has said: 'We are looking for more substantial answers with documented references, not merely [statements that may possibly be no more than] personal opinion. Those are just comments, not answers.' // One such reference is ODO, which has 'Although the expression ‘a number’ is strictly singular, the phrase ‘a number of’' is used with plural nouns (as what grammarians call a determiner ... ). The verb should therefore be plural....' – Edwin Ashworth Mar 15 '17 at 21:36
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    @Pistos Agreement with 'a number of' has already been covered on ELU. The only reason I haven't close-voted this question is because I'm not entirely convinced that 'an odd number of' behaves in exactly the same way. See sumelic's commendable comment. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 16 '17 at 20:15

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