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Tackling More Tricky Word Choices: Another Look at Number Is and Number Are

Recently we’ve been reviewing word choices with nuances worthy of noting. Understanding subtleties of meaning and usage makes the instruments in our toolboxes even sharper for precise and eloquent writing.

Today we’ll look at another English-usage item that can sometimes be tricky even for experienced communicators.

When using the word number as a collective noun for countable items, which statement would you use?

A number of factors is weighing on her decision.
A number of factors are weighing on her decision.

In The Number vs. A Number, we put forth that number with the singular definite article the would be followed by a singular verb while number with the singular indefinite article a would prompt a plural verb. Thus, of the examples above, we would use:

A number of factors are weighing on her decision.

This guideline remains useful for subject-verb agreement in writing. At the same time, number may still pose a greater challenge to agreement than a collective noun such as none. None can more easily lend itself to a plural sense (“not any”) as well as a singular meaning (“not a single one”). This frees the object of the modifying prepositional phrase to help govern verb usage.

Examples
None of my co-workers are going to the seminar. (plural prepositional object, plural verb)
None of the team has reported to spring training yet. (singular prepositional object, singular verb)

What makes none more versatile is its lack of a preceding article. When acting as a subject, number will always require an article, often creating an underlying instinctive sense of quantity. This informed our earlier guideline for subject-verb agreement.

Depending on your circle of influence, some writers, instructors, and grammarians may insist that number is always a singular collective noun. Technically, their argument would pass inspection, just as our guideline would.

In the end, the truth comes down to what sounds right to your writer’s ear and whether you want to emphasize a plural or singular image. Number could be singular to you at all times, or it might seem either singular or plural according to its context. If ever you’re in doubt, you can apply our guideline of the number = singular verb, a number = plural verb and know your writing is still moving as it should.

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