Can you show me which one is the correct sentence?

"There is an unusual number of bees this summer."


"There are an unusual number of bees this summer."

I suppose that "There are" is more appropriate, but can you help me to chose the correct answer?

  • 1
    Depends on your interpretation of "number". – Hot Licks May 11 '19 at 4:08
  • 'The bees are present in an unusual number' and 'The bees is present in an unusual number' makes the choice a little easier, I think. It is the bees that are present, not the number that is present. – Nigel J May 11 '19 at 19:38

To me 'is' sounds right, but I'm wrong, according to Oxford dictionaries:


Although the expression ‘a number’ is strictly singular, the phrase ‘a number of’' is used with plural nouns (as what grammarians call a determiner (or determiner)). The verb should therefore be plural:

A number of people are waiting for the bus.

This is not the case with ‘the number’, which is still singular:

The number of people here has increased since this morning.

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  • Yes, but "a number of" is not a determiner. "Number" is a non-count quantificational noun functioning as head of the whole NP. – BillJ May 11 '19 at 8:55
  • The people are waiting. The number has increased. The number was not waiting. The people did not increase (in size). – Nigel J May 11 '19 at 19:34

There is/are an unusual number of bees this summer.

"Number" is a non-count quantification noun here, which is said to be 'number-transparent' for verb agreement purposes. This means that it is the number of the noun that is complement of the preposition "of" (called the 'oblique') that determines the number of the whole NP.

As it happens, in its number-transparent sense the noun "number" selects only plural obliques like your "bees", so the verb must be the plural "are".

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You can't possibly have counted the bees to find their exact number, and this exact number is irrelevant anyway. Your comment is more that the amount of bees is unusually high. So "number" is, as BillJ says, a non-count quantification noun. So you are referring to the bees collectively, so "There are an unusual number of bees".

Compare "Eleven is an unusual number of items to sell in a pack" where what is unusual is the exact number.

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