A couple of agreement issues

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t taken Monday’s quiz yet, you might want to skip this post. I am writing about a couple of issues raised in the quiz on subject-verb agreement.

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A colleague asked me about “the number” and “a number.” In the quiz, I wrote this sentence:

The number of mistakes in this report is unacceptable.

The short answer is that “the number” is always singular, but “a number” is plural. Bryan A. Garner offers a longer explanation in “Garner’s Modern American Usage.” He notes the principle of synesis, which means that the sense or meaning, rather than the strict rules of grammar, can govern the subject-verb agreement. So if the sentence were, “A number of mistakes in the report are unacceptable,” we would understand that “a number” refers to several (at least more than one) mistake. Perhaps, not every mistake in the report is unacceptable, but some are.

But in the sentence from the quiz, “the number” is singular. It’s “the number” that is unacceptable. It’s not just the mistakes that are unacceptable, but the number of them.

A reader asked about this sentence in the quiz.

Fareed Zakaria is one of the pundits who have suggested that Arab states have a stake in seeing the new Iraq government succeed.

Another way to think of this is that several (more than one) pundits have suggested and that Zakaria is one. The clause has its own subject “pundits” and its own verb “have suggested.” If we meant only Zakaria, we might write the sentence:

Fareed Zakaria is one pundit who has suggested that Arab states have a stake in seeing the new Iraq government succeed.

Again, it’s the fundamental sense of the sentence that governs the number of the verb.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.