A Bunch of Comments

By Maeve Maddox

The review post about “there is” and “there are” triggered so many comments about the word bunch that I decided to give the word a post of its own.

Here’s the sentence that provoked the discussion:

In his arms there are a whole bunch of corn husks.

Some readers defended the plural verb, suggesting that speakers often use bunch to mean many.

I suppose that when bunch is used figuratively to mean “a group of people,” treating it like committee or staff makes sense. Collective nouns like these may be either singular or plural, according to whether they are thought of as a unit or as a group of individuals:

The committee has approved the plans. (singular)
The committee are divided in opinion. (plural)

The staff is attending a retreat in the Catskills. (singular)
The staff are preparing their classrooms. (plural)

Our bunch is going to the races on Friday. (singular)
That bunch in Washington believe they are above the law. (plural)

Note: The plural constructions in these examples are all flagged by Word as needing singular verbs.

The earliest OED citation for bunch shows it used with the meaning “A protuberance, especially on the body of an animal.” For example, a 1398 reference to the camels of Arabia states that they have “two bunches on the back.” A character in Shakespeare’s Richard III (c.1593) refers to hunchbacked Richard as a “poisonous bunchback’d toad.”

Bunch in the sense of bundle is cited in 1505: “For thy bed, take now one bunch of straw.”

At one time, a bunch was a measurement that contained a certain quantity. For example, “a bunch of reeds” was “28 inches round.”

In modern usage, a bunch is “a collection or cluster of things of the same kind, either growing together (as a bunch of grapes), or fastened closely together in any way (as a bunch of flowers, a bunch of keys); also a portion of a dress gathered together in irregular folds.” (OED)

One reader asked to know if there is a difference between “a bunch” and “a whole bunch.”

Both mean “a lot of.” “A whole bunch” is an intensification of “a bunch.” Neither expression belongs in formal writing.

Just for fun, I entered the phrases “there is a bunch” and “there are a bunch” in the Google Ngram Viewer.

“There is a bunch” has the graph all to itself from 1800 to 1865, when the first “there are a bunch” makes its appearance. The plural expression remains insignificant until the 1940s, when it begins to rise in frequency. In 1984, “there are a bunch” pulls ahead of “there is a bunch” and soars ahead until 2000, which is as far as the graph goes.

There’s no knowing the context that produced the results on the Ngram chart. I mention it only as a curiosity.

Bottom line: When the collection referred to by the word bunch is made up of people, a plural verb does not jar. When referring to bundles of straw, grass, grapes, cornhusks and the like, pair bunch with a singular verb.

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2 Responses to “A Bunch of Comments”

  • venqax

    Very interesting, Maeve. A case where context makes all the difference and consistency is probably the most important concern.

  • Jeremy Marchant

    Surely, if consistency is the concern, the consistent use is to have all collective nouns taking singular verbs, if there is one instance of the noun.

    So, ‘The committee is divided’. It is the entity the committee that is divided, not each member of it.

    ‘The staff is preparing…’ does sound odd, though

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