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TheGrammarofNumbers
Twoplustwoisfour,right?Well,themoreyouknowaboutlanguage,themoreyoumightwonderaboutthat
basicequation.Maybetwoplustwoisfour,butthenagain,maybetwoplustwoarefour.
Whetheryoureanaceorairheadwhenitcomestomath,youvenodoubtstruggledwithgrammarand
numbersatsomepoint.Quantities,fractions,slipperywordsliketotalandmajority,teamandstaffits
sometimeshardtotellwhetherathingissingularorplural.

Quantities
OneofthemostcommonnumberquestionsIgetinmygrammarworkshopsconcernswhethercollectivenouns
suchastotal,numberandmajorityaresingularorplural.Theanswer(notnecessarilywhatparticipantswant
tohear)is,itdepends.Itdependsonwhetherthenounreferstoasingleentityortopluralitemsand,often,on
whetherthenounisprecededbyaorthe.
Taketotal,numberandrange,forinstance.Whenprecededbya,thesenounsusuallyteamupwithaplural
constructionandaretreatedasplural.Whenprecededbythe,theyrefertoasingleentityandaresingular.
Atotalof82dancershavesignedupforthechachacompetition.
Thetotalhasexceededourexpectations.
AnumberofadolescentsarewearingmidriffbaringTshirtsthissummer.
ThenumberofadolescentswearingmidriffbaringTshirtsthissummerishigherthanever.
Arangeofhomemadejams,jelliesandchutneysareforsaleatthisyearscraftfair.
Therangeofproductsforsaleatthefairisstaggering.
Ithelpstorealizethatwhenwecombinesuchnounswitha,wecreatefamiliarexpressionsthatareoften
synonymouswithsome,manyornumerousandarethereforeplural.Thisrealizationcanhelpwithother
words,suchasbunchandcouple,whosenumberisdeterminedmorebytheirsensethanbythepreceding
article.
Abunchofusareheadedtothedriveinfortonightsdoublefeature.(abunchmeanssome)
Abunchofbananasislessexpensive,butalsolessromantic,thanabouquetofflowers.(abunchrefersto
asingleentity)
Acoupleofdogsarepeeingonmylawn.(acouplemeanstwo)
AcoupleisentitledtoaValentinesdiscountwiththisvacationcompany.(acouplereferstoasingleentity)
Majorityismuchlikebunchandcouple.Whenitreferstoaplural(whichitusuallydoes),itsplural,butwhenit
referstoasingleentity,itssingular.
Amajorityofvotersinthereferendumhavechosentodestroytheirballots.(amajoritymeansmostof
them)
ThemajorityofthesePopTartshavefrostedtops,butIlltrytofindyouaplainone.(themajoritymeans
mostofthem)
Becauseyouhavearguedyourpointsopersuasively,themajorityhassidedwithyou.(themajorityrefersto
asingleentity)

Acoupleoffootnotesaboutmajority:Someusagetexts,suchastheOxfordGuidetoCanadianEnglishUsage
(2nded.,1997),remindustoavoidmajoritywhenwritingaboutthingsthatcantbecountedandcant
thereforehavealogicalmajorityforexample,work,informationortime.Inthesecases,mostisabetter
choice.
Most[notthemajority]ofthetime,youcancountonNatalietotellyouifyourewearingsomething
unflattering.
Othertexts,suchasGarnersModernAmericanUsage(3rded.,2009),gofurtherandpointoutthatmostcan
replacea/themajorityquiteoften,producingcrisperproseandamorenaturalplural.

Numbers
Likenounsofquantity,othernumericalexpressionscanshiftfromsingulartoplural,dependingonwhether
theyrefermoretopluralthingsortoasingleamount.
ThethreehourshespentwatchingABriefHistoryofHorticulturelastnightwerethelongestofMarvinslife.
(emphasisontheindividualhours)
Threehourswassimplytoolongforadocumentaryonshrubs,hedecided.(emphasisonthesingle
amount)
Fine,youmightsay,buttherearenumbers,damnednumbersandthenstatistics.True,percentagesand
fractionscanseemperplexing,butusageauthoritiesareconsistentintheiradvice:thenumberisdeterminedby
thenounfollowingthepercentageorfraction.
Accordingtothissurvey,64percentofrespondentsneedeyeglasseswhentheyread.
Theconsultantsaysthat38percentofthedatabaseneedstobeupdated.
Asnightfallsonthewildernesspark,onequarterofthecampersareblaringtheirradiosandthreequarters
ofthecampersarestewing.
Onequarteroftheparkisnoisythreequartersissilent.

Othercollectivenouns
Collectivenounsthatarelessnumberorientedcanbeequallytroublesome.Group,team,committee,staffand
soonaretheysingularorplural?Here,usageauthoritiestakeslightlydifferentpositionsdependingonwhich
sideoftheAtlantictheycallhome.IntheU.K.thesenounsareusuallytreatedasplural.InNorthAmerica
theyreusuallytreatedassingular,exceptwhenthemembersofthecollectiveareactingindependently,inwhich
casethenounsareconsideredplural.
Inthephoto,theteamisholdingaloftabannerthatsays"DebatingRules!"(theteamisactingasone
entity)
Theteamarearguingamongthemselvesaboutwhostartedtheonicefight.(theindividualsareacting
separately)
Thoughthelattersentenceiscorrect,manyCanadianeditorswouldchangeitto"Theteammembersare
arguing...."or"Theplayersarearguing...."tomakethepluralsoundmorenatural(andtosatisfyeditors
innatefussinessaboutconsistency).
Indeed,withcollectivenouns,consistencymattersaboveall.AsBillBrysonnotesinBrysonsDictionaryof
TroublesomeWords,"Acommonfaultistoflounderaboutbetweensingularandplural.EvenSamuelJohnson
stumbledwhenhewrotethatheknewofnonationthathaspreservedtheirwordsandphrasesfrom
mutability."Sokeepthedebatingteamsingularandthehockeyteamplural.

Dontcountonnumbers
Andwhatabouttwoplustwo?Thefactisthatwithequations,singularandpluralarebothcorrect,though
singularispreferred.Onceagain,consistencymattersmorethanthechoiceitself.
Inmath,itseasytodistinguishbetweenoneandmorethanone.Butinlanguage,itsnotthatsimple.In
language,itdepends.Thegrammarofnumbersismutable,whichisboththechallengeandthebeautyofthis
imperfectscience.

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DateModified:20151015