The Grammarphobia Blog

Majority rules

Q: Help! I work for a nonprofit policy-research organization. Which of these sentences is correct?
1. “A majority of workers has access to some paid sick days, but a substantial minority of them does not.” 2. “A majority of workers have access to some paid sick days, but a substantial minority of them do not.”

A: “Majority” is a collective noun, and collective nouns can be either singular or plural, depending on whether you’re talking about a group of individuals or the individuals in the group.

If you’re talking about the group itself, use the singular (“the majority is significant”), but if you’re talking about the individuals, use the plural (“a majority of the residents were polled”).

Here’s a trick from my grammar book Woe Is I: The word “the” before a collective noun (“the majority”) is usually a tip-off that it’s singular, while “a” before the noun (“a majority”), especially when “of” comes next, usually indicates a plural.

So, getting back to your question and putting the little trick to work, number 2 is correct: “A majority of workers have access to some paid sick days, but a substantial minority of them do not.”

Some other examples of collective words are “couple,” “none,” “number,” “any,” and “all.” As with “majority,” they can be either singular or plural, depending on whether you’re talking about the group or the members of the group. I discuss “none,” which trips up a lot of folks, in the Nov. 18, 2006, entry on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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