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3 sentences:-

  1. A number of such incidents has/have been reported by the local residents so far.
  2. The number of such incidents is/are very low.
  3. The number of elephants in Kerala has/have been dwindling.

What is the correct form of verb in the sentences, and why?

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[1] A number of such incidents has/have been reported by the local residents so far.

[2] The number of such incidents is/are very low.

[3] The number of elephants in Kerala has/have been dwindling.

In [1] "number", with the indefinite article "a", is a non-count quantification noun that is 'number transparent' in that the number of the whole NP is determined by the number of the NP (the 'oblique') that is complement of the preposition "of". As it happens, "number" permits only plural obliques, like "incidents", and hence the correct verb is the plural "have".

The number-transparent use of "number" in [1] indicates an imprecise number, but in [2] and [3] the definite article indicates a precise number, where the subject NP is singular by virtue of having singular non-transparent "number" as head. Thus, the correct verbs in [2] and [3] are singular "is" and "has".

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  • Can you expalin to me what do 'NP' and 'oblique' mean? – Shashwat Choudhary Sep 26 '20 at 10:26
  • NP = noun phrase. 'Oblique' is used for the noun phrase that is complement of the preposition "of" rather than directly of the head noun, "number". – BillJ Sep 26 '20 at 10:46
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A number of such incidents has/have been reported by the local residents so far.

The number of such incidents is/are very low.

The number of elephants in Kerala has/have been dwindling.

You ask for British English. I'm British. However there are disagreements about this.

My opinion is that "number" is singular and so the verb should be as well.

"A number has been reported"

"The number is very low."

"The number has been dwindling."

It would seem very odd to me to say, "The number are low". However "The numbers are low" makes absolute sense.

Other people seem to be influenced by the plural noun following "of". Grammatically that is indefensible but lot of people say it that way so I suppose it can be considered acceptable.

Let's see what other opinions there are.

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  • A dozen eggs has been smashed? A hundred cows has been infected? 'A dozen' = 12. 'A hundred' = 100. 'A number of ...' = '6 or 7, say, ...'. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 27 '20 at 16:27
  • @Edwin Ashworth - If the sentence was "A hundred of cows", then I would use the singular verb, but it isn't. – chasly - supports Monica Sep 27 '20 at 16:39
  • But 'a hundred' and 'a dozen' use singular noun-forms. Just like 'a number of'. And 'a score of'. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 27 '20 at 16:56

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