a smaller number of

JungKim

Senior Member
Korean
Aid groups and officials from Martelly's government say fewer visible encampments and a smaller number of displaced residents are proof Haiti is recovering. -From a news article.
If I were to rewrite the quote as the following, would the verb "is" be correct?
Aid groups and officials from Martelly's government say a smaller number of displaced residents is proof Haiti is recovering.
 
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Yes: a number of residents are still displaced (the residents are), but the number of displaced residents is decreasing (the number is).
     

    Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    Strictly speaking, "the number" is only the apparent, not the real subject of the word is. The real subject (what is really the proof) is the fact that the number is smaller. If we could take the original sentence and cut out "a smaller number of displaced residents" instead of "fewer visible encampments", we'd get:

    Aid groups and officials from Martelly's government say fewer visible encampments ??? proof Haiti is recovering.

    Here again it is not the encampments that are proof, but the fact that fewer of them are visible, which is proof of recovery, and therefore I would favour using is, not are in that position, despite the fact that it may at first look and sound odd.
     

    JungKim

    Senior Member
    Korean
    Many grammar books say that "a number of + plural noun" is followed by a plural verb, whereas "the number of + plural noun" is followed by a singular verb.

    If the singular verb "is" is possible in the OP's rewrite, then is this an exception to the above rule of a sort?

    On the other hand, would it have been better had "the smaller number" been used in the original sentence instead of "a smaller number"? Or is there any reason for using "a smaller number" in the original?
     

    Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    I'm sorry that in #4 I carelessly misquoted #1 by saying "the number" instead of "a number". Luckily that doesn't affect the substance of what I wanted to say.

    What your grammar books say is not wrong, but it isn't the whole truth, it's a simplification.

    The real factor which determines whether the verb should be singular or plural is whether its subject is singular or plural. When the subject is a noun clause of the form "a/the number of things", we need to decide whether "number" or "things" is the real subject. I would say your grammar books are correct to the extent that most of the time when "the number" is used the real subject will be "number", and when "a number" is used it will be "things". Generally speaking, context is probably a more reliable indicator of which is the subject than whether "the" or "a" is used.

    My sense, in the context of the present example, is that in "a smaller number of displaced residents" the subject is number, not residents, or to be more accurate, as I said in #4, the real subject is not even "number" as such but the fact that it is smaller.

    I do agree that it would probably have been better if the original had used "the number" instead of "a number". It would then mean that your grammar book rule would work without needing to delve too deeply into the context.
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top