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  1. The number of students is large.

  2. The number of students are absent.

  3. A number of students are absent.

We easily see that:

  • in sentence (1), "The number of students", we refer to "the number", so verb is in singular form.

  • in sentence (2) - "The number of students" and sentence (3) - "A number of students", we refer to "students", so verbs are in plural form.

But I don't know what is the difference between "The number of students" in sentence (2) and "A number of students" in sentence (3).

When you see or hear them, what would you think? What arises in your mind? In what context can we us "The number of students" or "A number of students"?

I hope to receive your advice. Many thanks in advance.

  • You could say, “the number of students [that are] absent is large” or “the number of students is missing” (meaning that the value stating the number of students - e.g. In a table- is blank) but as written #2 doesn’t make any sense. – Jim Jun 7 '17 at 22:11
  • The meaning of "A number of students are absent" is that we may have no exact tally, but are pointing to a notable percentage of missing students. By itself, version #2 doesn't hold together in the same way. Maybe "The number of students absent today is notable (singular). The reason 'a number of students' is plural relies not on students (plural), but on understanding that it means many students -- certainly more than one -- so we use plural. – Yosef Baskin Jun 7 '17 at 22:22
  • This is a duplicate question (apart from the ungrammatical suggestion), but I can't find a decent answer. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 8 '17 at 0:40
  • Jim, please, what's the difference between are absent and is missing, other than plurality? – Robbie Goodwin Jun 9 '17 at 16:34
  • Yosef, please, what’s the difference between a number of students is plural and * many students -- certainly more than one -- so we use plural*? – Robbie Goodwin Jun 9 '17 at 16:38
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The most primitive difference is that "The number of students are absent" is unacceptable English, but "A number of students are absent" is acceptable.

The phrase the number of X is always singular and takes a verb inflected for third person singular. In this construction of X is merely a complement or modifier (depending on your grammatical sect) of the number, and the number is a definite noun phrase meaning a specific number considered as an entity: the actual count of X.

The phrase a number of X is always plural and takes a verb inflected for plural. In this construction a number, although it looks like a noun phrase, is actually a quantifier, a sort of determiner meaning approximately "several". Of X is its complement or head nominal (again depending on your grammatical sect); X is cast in the plural and that plurality "percolates up" through the determiner to govern the number of the verb. ("Percolates up" is the apt metaphor employed by CGEL, which calls nouns used this way, such as number and lot/s and bunch, "non-count quantificational nouns".)


Well, almost always. It is possible for a number of X to occur with a singular X. For instance: Most texts of Revelation give the Number of the Beast as 666, but a few give 616. Pick a number of the Beast you like and give a plausible interpretation of that. In this case, a number is again a noun phrase and of the Beast its complement/modifier. But it took me a lot of effort to invent a legitimate instance of this practically very rare situation.

  • Is it just me, or does that pass the Question by? I don't understand how plurality, or the actual number, could matter… – Robbie Goodwin Jun 9 '17 at 17:51
  • @RobbieGoodwin The first actual Question is "What is the difference between A/The number of students are absent?" I answer that in my first sentence. The followup is "When do we use A/The number of students?", to which the remainder of my answer is addressed: The number designates a count, A number is a quantifier meaning "several". – StoneyB Jun 9 '17 at 17:59
  • Thanks StoneyB. I thought the questions meant why is the number of students are/is absent wrong and why is a number of students are/is absent correct. Either way I don't understand how plurality, or actual number, could matter – Robbie Goodwin Jun 9 '17 at 18:04
  • @RobbieGoodwin The number of X is always singular, a number of X is virtually always plural, because they have different syntactic functions. – StoneyB Jun 9 '17 at 18:20
  • Thanks and how does that relate to the problem. please? The number of students are/is absent is certainly not wrong because of plurality and prolly not because of specificity. A number of students are/is absent is not certainly not corrrect because of plurality and prolly not because of generality. – Robbie Goodwin Jun 9 '17 at 18:36

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