Is “Number” Singular or Plural?

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Tony writes:

In one of my posts, I found I had written “There is a significant number of sources…”. When reading it back to myself, I kept wanting to change the “is” to “are”, but I think the way I have it is actually more grammatically correct, even though it sounds odd to my ears. Am I right in thinking that I wrote it correctly the first time?

The noun number by itself is singular:
The number on his jersey is 88.
The number of unemployed has risen.

However, the phrase a number of calls for a plural verb:
A number of protesters were arrested.
There are a significant number of sources.

Tony’s experience is an example of what linguist Noam Chomsky meant when he argued that

the intuition of a native speaker is enough to define the grammaticalness of a sentence; that is, if a particular string of English words elicits a double take, or feeling of wrongness in a native English speaker, it can be said that the string of words is ungrammatical (when various extraneous factors affecting intuitions are controlled for).

Obviously among the “various extraneous factors” must be included sufficient exposure to standard English usage in speech and writing.

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25 thoughts on “Is “Number” Singular or Plural?”

  1. However, the verb should be agreeing with “number” since “of sources” is a prepositional phrase and therefore not the subject of the verb “is”. (Did I do my quotation marks correctly?) Yes?

  2. “Obviously among the ‘various extraneous factors’ must be included sufficient exposure to standard English usage in speech and writing.”

    Having read only the brief snippet from Noam Chomsky you included above, I think it is a bit of a leap from “native English speaker” to “native English speaker with sufficient exposure to standard English”. It seems the point is more that “grammaticalness” is a function of the set of native English speakers however they identify themselves. I don’t think most people in that set would exclude themselves for not having sufficient exposure to standard English.

  3. A confusion regarding the same was always in my mind also, but now cleared. Thanks for the post!!!

  4. This is from an English teacher in Argentina:

    It’s the idea of “countable” vs. “uncoutable” nouns.

    If you can “count” something, like bottles, or books or a number of people. Countable nouns become plural when there’s more than one item.

    “Uncountable” nouns are things that you can’s count. Like sky, pride, thunder or sugar (unless you put them into countable quantities, such as a “packet of sugar”).

    So, since you can count a significant number of sources, it has to be plural.

  5. My take on this:

    “A number of . . .” follows the same guidelines as “all of . . . .”

    “All of . . .” is plural or singular based on the object of the preposition. Singular object = singular verb. Plural object = plural verb.

    Because the object of the preposition for “a number of” will always be plural, we need the plural form of the verb.

    “All of the CHANGE IS lost.”
    “All of the MEN ARE present”
    “A number of MEN ARE present.”

    But . . .

    “The number of men present is six.”

  6. I often hear people say Stuffs. But one of my teachers told me, there’s no “s” in stuff.. it’s plural already. So which one is true.. stuffs or stuff

  7. k_anish: Your teacher is correct. “Stuffs” (used as a noun) is not a word.
    Further explanation on whether “number” takes a plural or singular verb:

    “The number of” is a singular collective noun and requires a singular verb.
    “The number of unemployed U.S. workers is steadily increasing.”

    “A number of,” on the other hand, is a plural form and therefore takes the plural verb form.
    “A number of unemployed U.S. workers are beginning to feel the crunch.”

    Note: I’m adding this to reinforce the rule for myself as well as for other readers. 🙂

  8. My son is driving me crazy!!!! He consistently says ” I need to do a few stuff. ” I reply that he should properly say ” I need to do a few things ” or ” I need to do some stuff “. I know my options are fine, but my question is whether his version is also proper. Please help us !!

  9. Hi,
    Could anyone help me in this:
    “What was the cause of all this? Was it the fire? Was it the water baloons?”
    Is it correct to say “was it the water baloons”?

  10. @hanan: Yes, it is correct to say “Was it the water balloons?”, because “it” refers to the cause, which is singular, and not to the plural water balloons.

  11. I have a question concerning the use of “explanation of” versus “explanation on”. I’m more accustomed to hearing “explanation of”, but internet search results show that “explanation on” is sometimes used also. Is there a distinction in meaning between the two different phrases? Is there any reference source that provides guidance as to when “explanation of” should be used versus “explanation on”?

  12. Hi Janice,

    Regarding “explanation of” and “explanation on.”

    “Explanation on” is not standard usage. I have never heard “on” used with “explanation.” Likewise, “explanation to” is incorrect.

    You can have an explanation of something, an explanation for something, and an explanation about something.

    But not “explanation on.”

    Hope that helps.

  13. I believe this is a matter of American vs. British English. I agree with Cassie that it is preferable to use a singular verb with “the number” in American English.

  14. PreciseEdit (or whoever can help),

    Regarding “all of”: what if there are multiple uncountable objects?

    For example:

    “All of the food and water is/are mine.”
    “All of the research and writing is/are mine.”
    “All of the research and writing is/are my own work.”


  15. I feel that this article is misleading. There is proper english and there is *the english that most of us speak*. I am not making any value judgements at all, but I think there should be some regard for the rules. Number is a singular, numbers is plural. As such, the one would say, “A number of the protestors was arrested”. As stated above by someone else, “of protestors” is a prepositional phrase, and should be able to be removed wihtout affecting the rest of teh sentence. It might sound *wrong*, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
    Other examples:

    (None: singular)
    None of the triangles IS black. (one may want to say ARE, but that is incorrect)

    I guess I must simply say I think the author of teh article is wrong in saying that certain uses of nouns would affect if they are singular or plural.

  16. Tadpole: afraid I disagree with you there… I agree with the statement that: “prepositional phrase … should be able to be removed wihtout affecting the rest of the sentence”, but from this it surely follows that “a number of” is the prepositional phrase to be removed.

    Removing “of protesters” leaves us with “a number was arrested”, which is clearly meaningless as a number is a mathematical construct, and it is not possible to arrest a number!

    However, removing “a number of” leaves us with “the protesters were arrested”, which makes sense and is grammatically correct.

  17. I have a question and any justification of answer is highly appreciable. In the below question stating

    The number of women who refuse to wear uncomfortable shoes ____________(is / are ) reducing.

    In some website, i saw the answer as “is”, while i think since women is plural it should be “are”. Can someone please clarify.

    Thanks !

  18. Kumar,
    Although I wrote this post, looking back I see that there was more to say about this usage. As Garner says, (_Garner’s Modern English Usage_) when the definite article appears in front of “number of,” we’re talking about the word “number” and not the plural word that follows it. In your example, the verb should be singular to agree with “number.” However, a more appropriate participle would be “declining” (not “reducing.”) “The number of women who refuse to wear uncomfortable shoes is declining.”

  19. this rule isn’t always true. i was editing my book for one sentence using “number of”:

    “…the number of individuals in domestic confinement is roughly five times higher than it should be even with dropping crime rates.”

    there’s no way “are” would be the correct verb here!

  20. Hello, everyone:

    Could you please help me?

    There is a user interface in which all the column headers are written in singular form. Only one column header is written in plural form “Systems.”

    For maintaining consistency, is it correct to suggest “Number of System” (the number(s) under this column header could be 1, 8, 154, or more) instead of “Systems”?
    The rows are of different site names.

    If yes, please provide the explanation.

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