How can I tell whether constructions like “X of Ys” should be considered singular or plural, given that X is singular but Y is plural?

  1. A gaggle of girls boards the train.
  2. A gaggle of girls board the train.

  3. The gaggle of girls was running to catch the train.

  4. The gaggle of girls were running to catch the train.

Can one version be right sometimes but the other right other times?

Can both versions ever be right?

  • What part is it that you're questioning? I see a subject, a transitive verb, and a direct object. Are you worried that the verb needs to be plural? – tchrist Jan 22 '18 at 1:58
  • Yes; I am wondering whether the verb ought to be plural. Thanks – Richard Fox Jan 22 '18 at 2:26
  • Nope. My OED includes "a group of noisy people" in its definitions of the noun 'gaggle'. – Ross Murray Jan 22 '18 at 5:23
  • Have you looked up gaggle in a good dictionary? Still have questions? – Kris Nov 19 '18 at 8:44
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    If the girls were flying instead, they would be a skein. – Kris Nov 19 '18 at 8:46

I would say #1 and #4 are correct, #3 is wrong, and #2 is allowable and would should they were acting individually rather than as a group. CMoS says:

5.8 Mass nouns A mass noun (sometimes called a noncount noun) is one that denotes something uncountable, either because it is abstract {cowardice} {evidence} or because it refers to an indeterminate aggregation of people or things {the faculty} {the bourgeoisie}; the latter type is also called a collective noun. As the subject of a sentence, a mass noun usually takes a singular verb {the litigation is varied}. But in a collective sense, it may take either a singular or a plural verb form {the ruling majority is unlikely to share power} {the majority are nonmembers}. A singular verb emphasizes the group; a plural verb emphasizes the individual members.
5.9 Mass noun followed by a prepositional phrase Mass nouns are sometimes followed by a prepositional phrase, such as number of  plus a plural noun. The article that precedes the mass noun signals whether the mass noun or the number of the noun in the prepositional phrase controls the number of the verb. If a definite article (the) precedes, the mass noun controls, and typically a singular verb is used {the quantity of pizzas ordered this year has increased}. If an indefinite article (a or an) precedes, then the number of the noun in the prepositional phrase controls {a small percentage of the test takers have failed the exam}

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    I don’t see anything wrong with #3 either. It just takes the whole gaggle as a single unit, running in unison with no individual force of will or action, like one big blob of teenage girl–ness. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 21 '18 at 9:32
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    I don't believe 'gaggle' is a mass noun. Rather, it's a collective noun. english.ucalgary.ca/grammar/course/speech/1_1b.htm Collective nouns are almost always considered singular in American English but can be treated as either singular or plural in British English. onestopenglish.com/grammar/grammar-reference/… – Dan J. May 22 '18 at 14:18
  • @DanJ. +1 That's more of an answer than a mere comment. – Kris Nov 19 '18 at 8:43

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