Q: A colleague and I are grappling with a grammar question and would appreciate your advice. Here is the sentence in question: “A portion of the awards [is/are] based on merit.” I believe the subject is “portion,” which is singular and requires “is.” My colleague believes the subject is “awards,” which is plural and therefore requires “are.” Thanks for your help.
A: You’re right in that “portion” is the subject of the sentence. Here “portion” is what’s called a collective noun, a noun that is normally singular and denotes a collection or a number of things.
R. W. Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, says that when a collective noun is followed by “of” plus a plural (as in “a portion of the awards”), the choice between a singular or plural verb is up to you.
Traditionalists (at least in American English, which is somewhat stricter on this point than British English) would insist on a singular verb – in this case, “is.” But as Burchfield points out, “in practice a plural verb is somewhat more common.”
Faced with this construction, however, I’d rewrite it. A sentence beginning “A portion of the awards is” just doesn’t sound like good English, even if it technically might be.
What’s wrong with “Some of the awards are”? Alternatively, there are collective nouns that are used in the plural more often and more naturally than “portion.”
For example: “A number of the awards are” or “A handful of the awards are” or “A majority of the awards are.” These collectives are more flexible in their usage and are often construed as plural. If you’d like to read about how to use them, I wrote a blog entry about collective nouns a while back.
Sorry it’s taken me so long to answer you. The volume of my mail has mushroomed. My in-box doesn’t understand the concept of portion control!