The Grammarphobia Blog

The subject was colors

Q: In a proposal to a client some time ago, I wrote, “A wide range of colors are available.” The client replied, “It’s ‘A wide range of colors is available.’ ” Since then, friends, family, and casual observers have been engulfed by the issue. Thanks much if you are able to weigh in.

A: This is a problem of subject-verb agreement, and it’s a sticky one.

What makes it sticky is the combination of a singular noun phrase (“wide range of”) followed by a plural noun (“colors”). Should the verb agree with the singular noun (“range … is available”) or the plural (“colors are available”)?

We say plural: “A wide range of colors are available.”

And faced with similar examples, so do the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “Experts and common sense agree that the plural verb is natural and correct.”

In a section devoted to subject-verb agreement, the usage guide takes this sentence as its example: “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon.” (It’s a line from Robert W. Service’s 1907 poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”)

Merriam-Webster’s says “were” is correct in this sentence, and it notes that commentators like James J. Kilpatrick and Jacques Barzun also weigh in on the plural side in such cases.

One reason for choosing a plural verb is the concept of “notional agreement.” This is agreement based on meaning—that is, the meaning an expression has to the writer or speaker—rather than on form.

In the case of “a wide range of colors” and “a bunch of the boys,” the meaning is clearly plural. But the collecting noun phrase at the beginning (“a wide range of,” “a bunch of”) is singular in form.

This is the heart of the problem. And as Merriam-Webster’s says, “the conflict between notional and formal agreement is behind many disputed usages.”

M-W, along with most modern authorities on English grammar and usage, comes down on the side of notional agreement. But the usage guide says there are other factors “pulling in the direction of the plural.”

These include proximity (“boys” is closer to the verb than “bunch”) and what M-W calls “the plain sense of the subject-verb relation.” That is, “the boys whoop, not the bunch.”

Further, the usage guide says, “if boys is the real subject of the sentence, then the phrase a bunch of is functioning essentially as a modifier—it is, in fact, very similar to what many modern grammarians call a predeterminer.”

The editors go on to supply similar examples where a collecting noun phrase followed by a plural noun calls for a plural verb. We’ll abbreviate a few of the examples:

“a rash of stories have reported” … “a host of people who are interested” … “a class of sentences which are superficially parallel” … “a fraction of such deposits are actually insured” … “a large part of the Jewish communities were Arabic-speaking.”

The editors at M-W conclude: “When you have a collecting noun phrase (a bunch of) before a plural noun (the boys), the sense will normally be plural and so should the verb.”

“Normally,” yes, but not always. We think you have to consider the meaning case by case, “the plain sense,” as M-W puts it.

Nobody would have a quarrel with a sentence like “A bunch of flowers was delivered.” Here the real subject is the bunch.

Similarly, reasonable people can disagree on notional versus formal agreement. Take the case of institutional and collective nouns and how they’re perceived in the US as opposed to the UK.

The American practice is to go with formal agreement: “the commission is” … “General Electric was.” The British practice is to go with notional agreement: “the commission are” … “General Electric were.”

In the US, the institution is regarded as a singular entity; in the UK, it’s regarded as a collection of individuals.

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