Bob Kerns: Thinking

Thinking about Science, Engineering, and Technology


On subject/verb agreement in the face of "number of"

One of my favorite webcomics is Past Utopia. It is a masterpiece of world-building, with a community of readers who delve deeply into the details.

The January 23, 2023 page, includes this phrase:

There is a large number of desperate, dangerous, and not exceedingly clever people among your enemies.

This provoked a discussion of whether it should be “There is” or “There are”.

This throws people into confusion on a regular basis; there is a conflict between gramatical rules of “subject/verb” agreement, and the notion of a prepositional phrase.

Look at it this way: You can omit the “large number of”, without changing the subject.

It makes no sense to speak of the existence of the number. It exists, whether it is zero, one, or a billion.

“a large number of” serves to indicate quantity. It could be replaced by “many”. “Of” is not filling its usual role as a preposition here, in the sense that it “of…people” cannot be removed without altering the subject of the sentence. In contrast, “large number of” can be omitted, leaving the subject intact, and only changing the sense of quantity”.

Consider: “There is water”. “There is a lot of water.” “There are a lot of bottles of water”.

“Water” is not a countable noun. “Bottles” is countable. “Lot of” quantifies either water or bottles. But the verb tracks what is quantified.

“There is lots of water”. “There is lots and lots of water”.

This is somewhat idiomatic, but here, even though the plural “lots” is used, the verb follows the subject.

And yes, “water” or “people” is the subject in the sentence. “There” is an adverb. It can’t also be a participant in a prepositional phrase.

If you want a prepositional phrase, consider: “People are there in large number”. “Water is there in many bottles” “Many bottles of water are there”.

The difference between the last two is interesting. We can talk about water, and how it is contained, or we can talk about the bottles, and what they contain.

Also note that the proposition shifts between them. I still remember, 30 years later, the day I finally realized just what a mess English prepositions are. I was sort of lulled into complacency by the similarity of how they work in Spanish.

But in Japanese, there are no prepositions. (“Particles” fill some of the roles, but work differently). So trying to teach Japanese speakers how to use prepositions in English, I found there is no rule of thumb you can give for how to select the right preposition.

For every verb, there are multiple roles by which a noun can relate to that verb. And for each role, learning English requires learning whether that role is filled by a direct object, indirect object, subject, or which of about 150 prepositions are used to denote that role.

All of this serves to illustrate that English grammar is a retrofit. It is as complex as it is, because it has to account for the wide range of usage, but even with all that complexity, grammar rules fail with regularity.

We don’t use grammar rules to either generate or understand English. We only use them analytically, to discover or impose a degree of regularity.

When my then-4-year-old stepdaughter was learning English, my model of language acquisition was upended. It was definitely not how I was largely taught for either Spanish or Japanese.

She would never ask what words meant. She would ask what complete sentences, or large sentence fragments, meant.

Picture me driving home from work down La Cienega in LA past Baldwin Hills toward Hollywood, during evening rush hour. The radio mentions something about the Civil War. My task is now to explain, in Japanese, to a 4-year-old, War, Civil War, and slavery. Not the words—the concepts, relating them to whatever it was that was actually said on the radio.

It is impossible to write an accurate grammar checker for English. They can be useful, but you have to accept that they get things wrong. I did a little work with this at DEC around 1992 or so, looking to extend an existing grammar checker for issues specific to Japanese speakers.

Articles (the/a/an, etc.) are worse than prepositions. There is no gramatical rule you can apply to make the correct choice, not even by listing all the cases. The choice depends on the semantics—what meaning is to be conveyed.

But the first step in choosing is to identify the target. “The big red book”/“a big red book” ⇒ “book”. Is it a specific, unique book, or any book that is big and red?

That’s the first step in noun-verb agreement—the question we face here. But even here, it can be a lot more complex than it appears, when approached as a matter of syntax.

But noun-verb agreement is based on the subject of the sentence. If you understand what the sentence is saying, semantically, it is not hard to pick out the sentence. Refer back to my “water” examples above. “Water” is the subject in all of them, not “lot”. (Except for the example contrasting “bottles” as the subject).

So to recap, neither “number” nor “lot” are the subject of the sentences here. In the comic, it is “people” (who are desperate and dangerous, but not exceedingly clever, as well as being among the enemies, and in large number).