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The Grammar of Numbers

   

Two plus two is four, right? Well, the more you know about language, the more you might wonder about that basic equation. Maybe two plus two is four, but then again, maybe two plus two are four.

Whether you’re an ace or airhead when it comes to math, you’ve no doubt struggled with grammar and numbers at some point. Quantities, fractions, slippery words like total and majority, team and staff—it’s sometimes hard to tell whether a thing is singular or plural.

Quantities

One of the most common number questions I get in my grammar workshops concerns whether collective nouns such as total, number and majority are singular or plural. The answer (not necessarily what participants want to hear) is, it depends. It depends on whether the noun refers to a single entity or to plural items and, often, on whether the noun is preceded by a or the.

Take total, number and range, for instance. When preceded by a, these nouns usually team up with a plural construction and are treated as plural. When preceded by the, they refer to a single entity and are singular.

  • A total of 82 dancers have signed up for the cha-cha competition.
  • The total has exceeded our expectations.
  • A number of adolescents are wearing midriff-baring T-shirts this summer.
  • The number of adolescents wearing midriff-baring T-shirts this summer is higher than ever.
  • A range of homemade jams, jellies and chutneys are for sale at this year’s craft fair.
  • The range of products for sale at the fair is staggering.

It helps to realize that when we combine such nouns with a, we create familiar expressions that are often synonymous with some, many or numerous and are therefore plural. This realization can help with other words, such as bunch and couple, whose number is determined more by their sense than by the preceding article.

  • A bunch of us are headed to the drive-in for tonight’s double feature. (a bunch means some)
  • A bunch of bananas is less expensive, but also less romantic, than a bouquet of flowers. (a bunch refers to a single entity)
  • A couple of dogs are peeing on my lawn. (a couple means two)
  • A couple is entitled to a Valentine’s discount with this vacation company. (a couple refers to a single entity)

Majority is much like bunch and couple. When it refers to a plural (which it usually does), it’s plural, but when it refers to a single entity, it’s singular.

  • A majority of voters in the referendum have chosen to destroy their ballots. (a majority means most of them)
  • The majority of these Pop-Tarts have frosted tops, but I’ll try to find you a plain one. (the majority means most of them)
  • Because you have argued your point so persuasively, the majority has sided with you. (the majority refers to a single entity)

A couple of footnotes about majority: Some usage texts, such as the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd ed., 1997), remind us to avoid majority when writing about things that can’t be counted and can’t therefore have a logical majority—for example, work, information or time. In these cases, most is a better choice.

  • Most [not the majority] of the time, you can count on Natalie to tell you if you’re wearing something unflattering.

Other texts, such as Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., 2009), go further and point out that most can replace a/the majority quite often, producing crisper prose and a more natural plural.

Numbers

Like nouns of quantity, other numerical expressions can shift from singular to plural, depending on whether they refer more to plural things or to a single amount.

  • The three hours he spent watching A Brief History of Horticulture last night were the longest of Marvin’s life. (emphasis on the individual hours)
  • Three hours was simply too long for a documentary on shrubs, he decided. (emphasis on the single amount)

Fine, you might say, but there are numbers, damned numbers and then statistics. True, percentages and fractions can seem perplexing, but usage authorities are consistent in their advice: the number is determined by the noun following the percentage or fraction.

  • According to this survey, 64 percent of respondents need eyeglasses when they read.
  • The consultant says that 38 percent of the database needs to be updated.
  • As night falls on the wilderness park, one quarter of the campers are blaring their radios and three quarters of the campers are stewing.
  • One quarter of the park is noisy; three quarters is silent.

Other collective nouns

Collective nouns that are less number-oriented can be equally troublesome. Group, team, committee, staff and so on—are they singular or plural? Here, usage authorities take slightly different positions depending on which side of the Atlantic they call home. In the U.K. these nouns are usually treated as plural. In North America they’re usually treated as singular, except when the members of the collective are acting independently, in which case the nouns are considered plural.

  • In the photo, the team is holding aloft a banner that says "Debating Rules!" (the team is acting as one entity)
  • The team are arguing among themselves about who started the on-ice fight. (the individuals are acting separately)

Though the latter sentence is correct, many Canadian editors would change it to "The team members are arguing . . . ." or "The players are arguing . . . ." to make the plural sound more natural (and to satisfy editors’ innate fussiness about consistency).

Indeed, with collective nouns, consistency matters above all. As Bill Bryson notes in Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, "A common fault is to flounder about between singular and plural. Even Samuel Johnson stumbled when he wrote that he knew of no nation ‘that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability.’ " So keep the debating team singular and the hockey team plural.

Don’t count on numbers

And what about two plus two? The fact is that with equations, singular and plural are both correct, though singular is preferred. Once again, consistency matters more than the choice itself.

In math, it’s easy to distinguish between one and more than one. But in language, it’s not that simple. In language, it depends. The grammar of numbers is mutable, which is both the challenge and the beauty of this imperfect science.

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