Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Number transparency and determiner choice

A noun is said to be number transparent when the verb doesn't agree with it even when it functions as the subject in constructions like, A number of people were there. In this case, the head of the subject is singular number, but nevertheless, were agrees with plural people. What I just realized recently is that there's a big difference between a number and the number. In the COCA, [a number of * are/is] turns up 353 instances of are and only 19 of is, for a ratio of 18.6:1. In contrast, [the number of * are/is] results in only 16 instances of are and  291 of is, for a ratio of 1:18.2, almost exactly inverse.

Other determiners have other patterns. The are to is ratios are:
  • any number:  7:2
  • this number: 0:2
  • that number: 1:4
  • some number: 1:0
  • etc.

9 comments:

Faldone said...

It's not the number that was there; it's the people that were there. On the other hand, if one were to say "The number of people there was/were greater on Saturday than on Friday," it's the number we're talking about so it would be "the number ... was ..."

Brett said...

From a semantic viewpoint, it's the people who are there, but syntactically, it's hard to see how you would parse this such that people is the subject.

Randy Alexander said...

Interesting. So the choice of are or is is selected by whether the determinative is indefinite or definite (respectively).

A, any, and some are indefinite, and select are; and the, this, and that are definite, and select is.

Looking at some of the data further suggests that it's more than a tendency. It might be a rule. [a number of * is] produces results like:

"what we are attempting to do and are in discussions now with a number of developers is move to some alternatives"

"but to talk in terms of a number of decades is not helpful"

"the exact screening language that we've been living by for a number of years isn't necessarily carved in stone"

In all but one hit in this query, the phrase "a number of *" is not the subject that is selecting is; that phrase is embedded in a modifier that just happens to be to the left of is.

The one query that matches the intended pattern is:

"But a number of developments is on its way."

This sentence seems (to me at least) to be emphasizing "number" as the subject, and not "developments".

Faldone said...

Maybe it's because I don't know that much about linguistics but it seems to me that you parse this so that people is the subject by seeing [a] number of as a determiner.

Brett said...

Yes, I've seen a number of books do that, but the problem I see is that a number of isn't a constituent. See my explanation here.

Q Higuchi said...

For standard EFL explanations, you can take a look at _Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English_ (5th), where we are simply told 'Use a singular verb after _the number of_ ... Use a plural verb after _a number of_'.

For analyses of the structure of _a number of_, see CGEL pp351-52. It is a messy area in English grammar.

Ran said...

I agree with Faldone; it has to do with semantics. It's possible to trigger number-transparency with definite "number", it just takes effort to construct a sentence with definite "number" where the semantic subject is whatever it's a number of. For example, Google finds:

> Her story proved to me that even if the majority didn't do any kind of resistance, the small number of people who did were able to save valuable lives.

> [...] why no young women “went out” in the 1970s, and why the small number who did were all married [...]

Rick Sprague said...

If a Beckner/Bybee gradual transition is underway, wouldn't you expect that different constructions shift their grammatical analyses at different times? So a number of might have to be analyzed ambiguously, and independently from of whom a number during the transition. Otherwise, how could it be gradual?

Maybe I've been thinking about this too long, but the following doesn't seem entirely impossible to me:
The magician asked for volunteers from the audience, of whom a number of were selected as subjects.
Right now, to me, this sounds like a grammatical slip, the kind anyone might make in rapid continuous speech. I might even accept it as informal right now. But it's completely intelligible, and redundant preposition insertion is a known, accepted phenomenon. If it became commonplace, would there be any more doubt that a number of was functioning as a determinative, even while the number of remained a non-constituent?

Brett Reynolds said...

"If it became commonplace, would there be any more doubt that a number of was functioning as a determinative, even while the number of remained a non-constituent?"

Under those conditions, I believe you would be right. Currently, though, I don't think there's much evidence for it.