ambiguous subject - is/are

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MindBoggle

Senior Member
Danish. English from childhood
Hi everybody. :)

The consensus seems to be that There are a lot of people (respecting the logical plural of many people) is correct, whereas There is a lot of people (respecting the grammatical singular of a lot) is wrong.

I asked a similar question last year. I wondered about the sentence My generation (of people) wears hats. This is another subject which is singular but refers to a plurality.

I was told that My generation wears hats (respecting the grammatical singular of a generation) is correct and My generation wear hats (respecting the logical plural of many people) is wrong.

Taken together there seems to be some tension between these two usages. Why is one subject considered plural and the other singular?

What is the difference?

Any inputs?
 
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    'A lot of' and 'a number of' are simply quantifiers, like 'many', as far as grammatical agreement goes. You simply ignore the internal structure (a singular noun 'lot' or 'number' inside them). No-one is saying a number (e.g. 47) is doing something. Only the people are doing things.

    This is different from group nouns like 'group', 'generation', 'team' etc. If a team of builders is/are building a house, then the builders are building the house, and also the team is building a house. Both nouns actually apply, and agreement can go either way.
     

    MindBoggle

    Senior Member
    Danish. English from childhood
    'A lot of' and 'a number of' are simply quantifiers, like 'many', as far as grammatical agreement goes. You simply ignore the internal structure (a singular noun 'lot' or 'number' inside them). No-one is saying a number (e.g. 47) is doing something. Only the people are doing things.
    Thank you for your explanation entangledbank, and yes, I guess this must be the way to explain practice, but to me it feels a bit arbitrary. But fair enough, if that's considered correct usage, then that's how it is.

    This is different from group nouns like 'group', 'generation', 'team' etc.
    Well - somebody who wanted to be philosophical about it might object that 'a generation' is hardly doing anything either. To me 'generation' feels just as abstract as 'number' or 'lot'. But - again - if the language community has agreed that 'lot' and 'number' are abstract, inert quatifiers and other (rarer) group words, like 'generation' are not, then that is just how it is, I guess. :p

    If a team of builders is/are building a house, then the builders are building the house, and also the team is building a house. Both nouns actually apply, and agreement can go either way.
    This speaks to my sense of logic. What I hear you say is that in cases like this, agreement is sort of aspectual (like the Greek distinction perfect/aorist/imperfect), i.e. it is more about how the speaker chooses to view the situation and less about the situation itself. In other words: If I say The team (of builders) builds the house, I choose to view the team as a single, cohesive unit (and choose to convey this idea to the listener), whereas if I say, the team (of builders) build the house, I choose to view the team as not (or less) cohesive - as many individuals (and convey that idea to the listener).
    In short: My choice of agreement says something about how I feel about the situation.

    This would make sense to me.

    - except that this option isn't available for 'a lot' and 'a number' which (for unknown reasons) have been defined as 'quantifiers'.

    Ok, I think I get it - but I still think it feels a bit random. :p

    Thanks
    MindBoggle
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    Try looking at it this way: Both lot and number have many meanings, and how they are treated depends on what meaning is intended. So for example, for lot, there's "a plot of land" or "a parcel or package of merchandise," and for number there's "a mathematical unit." These clearly refer to a distinct unit. But just as clearly, neither of those meanings applies here. When we say "there were a lot of people" or "a significant number attended," there is no implication that a particular group or unit is meant (as there is in group or generation). What a lot and a number mean in these contexts is, simply, "many" or "quite a few" or "scads." It would be artificial and illogical to treat them any other way, I think. There's plenty of illogical things in English already - let's not add any more. :)
     

    MindBoggle

    Senior Member
    Danish. English from childhood
    So for example, for lot, there's "a plot of land" or "a parcel or package of merchandise,"
    Lot must be cognate with Danish lod, (a plummet, a lot, a fate) and I suspect the original meaning of the phrase a lot of X is a portion (or an allotment/sortition) of X. The implication is that the number of X is random (or fated) and therefore unknown.
    If this is then conceived of as synonymous with 'a number of' with no connotation of any kind of group cohesion or identity, then it makes sense. Maybe, over time, the 'fated number' was thought of as necessarily a large one (maybe because 'fated' implies 'unknown' and this excludes a small number), and then we arrive at the modern meaning of 'a lot of' sans the implication of "a particular group or unit".
    Maybe that is how it came to indicate an unknown, but large quantity?

    That's a good explanation, I guess.
    I'll settle for that.
    Thank you JustKate. :)
     
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