3

For those who are familiar with CGEL:

If you're not familiar with CGEL and find CGEL's explanation too technical, please skip the CGEL part and start reading the question in the second part:

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Page 350) says:

Number and couple permit only plural obliques, partitive or non-partitive: a number of the protesters/*money, a couple of days/*hope. Both occur in singular form with an obligatory determiner (usually a, but others are possible as shown in [58]), and in addition number can occur in the plural, and take a limited range of adjectival modifiers:

[58] i We found [huge numbers of ants] swarming all over the place.

ii If [this number of people] come next time we’ll bring in professional caterers.

iii [Any number of people] could have done a better job than that.

iv [The couple of mistakes she had made] were easily corrected.

v [An unusually large number of people] have applied this year.

vi [How large a number of students] have enrolled, did you say?

The definite article the does not occur with number in the sense we are concerned with here. In the number-transparent sense it indicates an imprecise number, but elsewhere it indicates a precise number, and in that case it can take the, as in The number of protesters arrested has not been revealed, where the subject NP is singular by virtue of having singular non-transparent number as head.

(Boldface mine.)

In the emboldened statement, the sense we are concerned with here refers to "the number-transparent sense" (mentioned in the following sentence), by which CGEL means that the number of the whole NP depends on the oblique.

See these examples:

[A lot of work] was done.

[A lot of errors] were made.

Here, the noun lot in the NP a lot of work/errors is "number-transparent" in that it allows the number of the oblique work/errors to percolate up to determine the number of the whole NP a lot of work/errors.

With that in mind, take a look at a variant of [58v]:

(1) [The largest number of people] have applied this year.

Here, I think have, but not has, is correct, which means that the number of the NP in the bracket depends on the oblique people, and that the noun number here is number-transparent.

Is (1) a counterexample of the emboldened statement of CGEL?


For those who are not familiar with CGEL:

Here's a usage note from Oxford Dictionary:

The construction the number of + plural noun is used with a singular verb (as in the number of people affected remains small). Thus it is the noun number rather than the noun people that is taken to agree with the verb (and is therefore functioning as the head noun).

By contrast, the apparently similar construction a number of + plural noun is used with a plural verb (as in a number of people remain to be contacted). In this case, it is the noun people that acts as the head noun and with which the verb agrees. In the latter case, a number of works as if it were a single word, such as some or several.

But in (1), it is the noun people that acts as the head noun and with which the verb agrees, but you have the before number.

(1) [The largest number of people] have applied this year.

Is (1) a counterexample of the Oxford usage note?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist May 16 at 20:59
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+50

It seems a number-transparent use of number can, in fact, take the when separated from it by some other word:

ii If [the same / expected number of people] come next time we’ll bring in professional caterers.

iii [Only the tiniest / stated number of people] have done a better job than that.

iv [The other / record number of mistakes she had made] were easily corrected.

v [The average / required / perfect number of people] have applied this year.

So, the ban on the for the number transparent use seems intended for the case in which the is the only pre-head element in the NP, where there's nothing separating the from number. Of course, it would be possible to write:

If [the number of people expected] come next time, we'll bring in professional caterers.

Only [the number of people stated] have done a better job than that.

[The number of people required] have applied this year.

Thus it seems that as long as number is modified so that we can pick out a particular number, number-transparent number can take the.

| improve this answer | |
  • If this is the case, I think you've spotted something that neither CGEL nor traditional grammar was able to figure out. Is there any source for your answer? Or is this something you have originally come up with? – JK2 May 11 at 4:31
  • @JK2 It's something I came up with while trying to figure out why your example (1) worked. – DW256 May 11 at 5:54
  • Great job! I'll have to wait for your answer to go through some vetting process by other reviewers, but unless your theory is disproved, I'll probably be awarding the bounty. Thank you. – JK2 May 11 at 5:56
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[The largest number of people] have applied this year.

I suspect the superlative largest is queering the deal here.

Last year's 50,000 applicants was well above average. However, the largest number of people ever [have/has] applied this year.

To my ear, either have or has is possible, but I prefer has, probably because of the was in the first sentence. This is a matter of notional agreement working with a different sense of number than CGEL's transparent sense.

All of last year's 50,000 applicants were drug tested. However, the largest number of people ever [have/has] applied this year, causing this policy to be reviewed.

Notional agreement may be more acceptable here due to the parallel structure.

In terms of transparency, the superlative or comparative has to match the sense of what it is being compared to. I score that as non-transparent with respect to the PP.

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  • 1
    Are you sure that Last year's 50,000 applicants was well above average is natural? I don't think that's a terribly natural thing to say. I'd say instead: The number of last year's applicants, which was 50,000, was well above average. But I could be wrong, so I'd like you to present me with some attested examples treating something like 50,000 applicants as singular using the concept of "notional agreement". AFAIK, notional agreement is not a license to treat 50,000 applicants as singular, nor is the application of "notional agreement" influenced by a prior sentence. – JK2 May 10 at 3:17
  • @JK2: With "last year's 50,000 applicants," the applicants weren't above average; it's the number 50,000 that was above average. So you have to use the singular (assuming you don't rewrite the sentence, which is clearly the best thing to do). – Peter Shor May 10 at 13:23
  • @JK2 I was actually thinking that have would be the notional agreement, with has being the default. They way I wrote it muddled that idea. The issue is one of notional agreement. In my first example, my ear says probably not to notional agreement, In the second, it says yes. And yes, the sentences were contrived to facilitate the OP's somewhat quirky example. – Phil Sweet May 10 at 15:42
  • @PeterShor I would never say Last year's 50,000 applicants were well above average. But I find Last year's 50,000 applicants was well above average sloppy. Do you find the latter natural? Also, I've added a comment to one of your past answers that is related to this question. Please check that out. – JK2 May 11 at 4:40
  • @PhilSweet I see where you're coming from. Thanks for clearing that up. But I still can't wrap my head around the notional agreement being influenced by a separate, prior sentence. – JK2 May 11 at 4:44

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