Learn English – Does “a [x] of [y]” take a singular or plural verb

grammatical-numberverb-agreement

What kind of verb, singular or plural, goes with phrases like "a record of [singular or plural noun]", "the use of", "the time of"? Does the choice depend on the following nouns (a record of nouns) or on the 'first' nouns (record, use, time)? Or do these phrases obey the rule of proximity (as does "a variety of")?

I have found different example sentences on the internet (source: newspapers or magazines) with different uses. What is correct?

Examples:

  • there were a record of other issues;
  • there were a record of 28,000 runners;
  • there was a record of these statements.

Best Answer

First, you're confusing the issue a bit with a misuse of "a record" in the adjectival sense. "There was a record of 28,000 runners participating" technically1 means that documentation existed for this number of runners – perhaps there were more runners, but the remainder were not documented. Here, the subject is "record", so the verb is singular. If you're trying to unambiguously remark on the fact that 28,000 is a large number, you need to leave out the "of": "There were a record 28,000 runners participating." Here, the subject is "runners", so the verb is plural.

1 In practice, it's an ambiguous statement, because lots of people use "a record of" incorrectly.

In the general case of "a [x] of [y]", the verb should agree with [x], unless it's one of the special cases (e.g. a lot of) where [x] itself is sorta-kinda plural in meaning, and so can take a plural verb. To figure it out, you can remove the extra words and see if the result sounds correct.

  • There was a record of these statements. (There was a record.)
  • The use of apples instead of pears was unexpected. (The use was unexpected.)
  • It was a time of mass uprisings and protests. (It was a time.)
  • There were a lot of people present. (There were a lot.)
  • A variety of options were available. (A variety were available.)