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The official Australian government page https://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/national-threat-level/current-national-terrorism-threat-level features the following quote.

This is because there are a small number of people in Australia and overseas who want to cause Australia harm.

If instead of “a small number of” the page used an adjective like “few” I would see the sentence as correct. It strikes me as odd, though, how with the sentence as it is,”are” is used instead of “is” as I see “number” as the subject of the sentence.

Is the sentence correct in its current form? If so, what special construct is “a small number of” and why can it be used as an adjective instead of being the subject of the sentence?

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    Note that if we use few as suggested, and not a few, the meaning reverses. I'd say 'good' if few people wanted to hurt us. Jul 25, 2022 at 13:04
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    Yes. Phrases like this are called Quantifiers. They are a type of Determiner. Determiners are not adjectives and have their own grammatical peculiarities; for one thing, they precede adjectives in a noun phrase.. And they tend to screw up number agreement on verbs, because the noun in the determiner phrase is often singular while the head noun is plural, or the other way around. Don't worry about number agreement; it adds no information and nobody cares except English teachers. Jul 25, 2022 at 14:26
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    @YosefBaskin definitely. I wasn‘t looking for a direct synonym, just an adjective that made grammatical sense. @fev‘s “several” fits best
    – Post Self
    Jul 25, 2022 at 16:07
  • @JohnLawler that makes sense. So would “is” be fine as well?
    – Post Self
    Jul 25, 2022 at 16:08

1 Answer 1

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The idea of plural is inherent to the phrase a number of. M-W defines it as meaning

more than two but fewer than many : several

  • There are a number of different options to choose from.

However, AHD pinpoints the cause of confusion:

As a collective noun number may take either a singular or a plural verb.
It takes a singular verb when it is preceded by the definite article the:

  • The number of skilled workers is increasing.

It takes a plural verb when preceded by the indefinite article a:

  • A number of the workers have learned new skills.

Lexico goes a bit further explaining that

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

A number of people are waiting for the bus.

So in your sentence, the head of the Subject NP is people, not number. Read it as:

there are SEVERAL [a small number of] people in Australia and overseas...

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