The Grammarphobia Blog

A lot of idiomatic English

Q: For an English assignment, my sixth-grade daughter wrote, “That’s a lot of books you’re carrying.” My wife, puzzled, ask for my opinion. I thought the sentence was fine, then wondered if it should be “Those are a lot of books you’re carrying.” Any rationale for either?

A: Some dictionaries will tell you that “lot” is singular, and that the plural form is “lots.” But in fact, the singular form, “lot,” can take either a singular verb or a plural one. You can have “a lot” of one thing, like milk (singular), or “a lot” of a collection of things, like cookies (plural).

So when “lot” is the subject of a sentence, the verb (singular or plural) depends on what follows. You would say “A lot of milk is spoiled” (singular), but “A lot of cookies are stale” (plural).

To use a more bookish example: “A lot of the book is boring,” but “A lot of books are boring.” In both cases, the subject is “a lot.”

The choice isn’t so clear when “a lot” is the object of the verb instead of the subject, as in the case with your daughter’s sentence: “That’s [or “Those are”] a lot of books you’re carrying.”

When “a lot” follows the verb, some speakers choose the plural (“Those are a lot of books…”), but many more treat “a lot” as a singular collective noun (“That’s a lot of books…”).

To my ear, the second choice sounds more natural and idiomatic. Why? Probably because of what linguists call “notional agreement” – a sense that “a lot” is singular even when it’s technically plural.

In my opinion, either “That’s a lot” or “Those are a lot” would be correct. But “That’s a lot” sounds more like good old idiomatic English

I hope this helps.

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