LawProse Lesson #211: Nouns of multitude.

Nouns of multitude.      Last week, we discussed the distinction between collective nouns and mass nouns and how you treat each in terms of numerical agreement. This week, we’ll address the related concept of nouns of multitude {a number of} {a bunch of} {a lot of}. These constructions typically place a collective noun after an indefinite article (a or an) and before an of-phrase using a plural or mass noun {a host of problems} {a group of doctors} {a set of stemware}. All nouns of multitude follow the same rules for grammatical concord: verbs and pronouns must agree in number with the noun following of, not the singular noun of multitude. As with collective nouns, the syntax is governed by meaning and not by strict grammar—a type of construction called “synesis” or “notional concord.” So if the noun after of is plural (as it typically is) the verb and pronoun must be too {A number of listeners always complain whenever we bring in a guest host.} {A gang of kids were riding their bikes around the neighborhood.}. But if the noun is a singular mass noun, use singular verbs and pronouns {A lot of this bread has mold on it.}. The same rules apply for nouns of partition, which refer to a part of the group that the noun after of represents {fraction} {part} {portion}; actual fractions; and percentages {A fraction of the students raised their hands.} {One-quarter of the competitors start at 10 a.m.} {Only 42% of doctors report getting annual physicals.}. Even a fraction that is plural in form gets the singular treatment if it’s followed by of and a mass noun {Two-thirds of Mary’s garden is planted with cockle shells.}. Seems simple enough, right? Alas, the issue is not without its traps. First, not all a/an + [noun] + of + [plural noun] constructions use nouns of multitude or partition. Typically, these imposters refer to containers or units of measurement {a jar of jellybeans} {a pound of nuts}. Here, the container or measurement itself governs meaning and therefore concord {A bushel of apples costs $60.}. Second, when the precedes number of instead of a, the emphasis is on the number itself, not the individual things it describes, so it is treated as singular. Compare “A number of applicants were unqualified” with “The number of unqualified applicants was surprising.” But not all nouns of multitude are treated this way (yes, there are exceptions to this exception!)—consider majority {The majority of senators vote along party lines.}. As with collective nouns, let meaning and emphasis—and above all, consistency—guide your choices. That way, you’ll avoid a multitude of problems. A number of things have been mentioned here. A fraction of them are truly important. Just try to remember that two-thirds of Mary’s garden is planted with cockle shells. Further reading: Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 874–75 (s.v. “synesis”) (3d ed. 2011). Garner’s Modern American Usage 578 (s.v. “number of”) (3d ed. 2009). The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 10.25(a), at 195 (3d ed. 2013). G.H. Vallins, Good English: How to Write It 17–18 (1951). R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage 158, 534 (1996). Bill Walsh, Yes, I Could Care Less 76–79 (2013).

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