Grammar Wednesday

Another quality entry from California Teacher Guy!

My Dear Mrs. Chili,

Which of the following sentences is correct?

There were a total of six ads.

There was a total of six ads.

One of those sentences came directly from John Grisham’s The Appeal. Can you guess which one it was?


Okay, here’s my take on this; technically, the subject of that sentence is total.  Remember that the subject of a sentence doesn’t come in an “of” phrase, so “ads” isn’t the subject of the sentence.  That being said, was is the correct form of the to be verb; because total is singular (there was a total) then the verb should also be singular.

That being said, I’m finding that, more and more, I’m hearing the plural verb being used to reflect the plural “of” phrases; things like there were a ton of seagulls at the beach today or that group of teenagers were the loudest I’ve ever heard. I still hitch when I hear these sorts of constructions (the subjects in those sentences are “ton” and “group,” both of which are singular) but I concede that the use of plural verbs is very common when there’s a plural object in question.

So, CTG, the short answer to your question is that *I* think the right construction is There was a total of six ads. That’s what I’d write, and as a teacher and copy editor, that’s what I’d correct the first sentence to read.

I also love that you wrote Which of the following sentences is correct? You made my point before we even started this conversation.  I dig that about you!

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!  Keep those GW questions coming!



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6 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Why, thank you! 😉

    BTW, Grisham’s sentence was the first of the two.

  2. I find myself getting mixed up on the were/was thing. I will edit a sentence and go back and forth because I cannot remember how it is supposed to be. Hopefully, I will remember from here on out.

  3. There’s a few different things here.

    Collective nouns – singular nouns that stand for a number of people or things – have been used with singular and plural verbs since Middle English. The use of the plural with words like “government, family, team” is more common in the UK than the US.

    There are two kinds of agreement in English: formal agreement, where the forms agree (for instance, singluar noun and singular verb: “everybody was late”), and notional agreement, where the meanings agree (for instance, noun referring to a group of people and a plural verb: “none were left”).

    There is also a principle of proximity, also called attraction or blind agreement: where the verb agrees with a noun or pronoun intervening between it and the subject, for instance “The common weight of these Halfpence are…” (Swift).

    A collective noun followed by “of” and a plural noun (sometimes called a partitive group) follows the same notional agreement as collective nouns in general. When the plurality is stressed, the verb is plural: “there were a ton of seagulls… that group of teenagers were…”
    And when the notion of oneness is stressed, the verb is singular: “The bulk of the stories by new writers is fairly dull.”

    These constructions have been used in the language by good writers for hundreds of years and are recognized as part of English grammar by many grammarians.

    See Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage under “collective nouns” and “agreement”

  4. Goofy, your explanations are always wonderful. I’m still chewing on this one…

    This subject/verb agreement thing can be difficult for everyone. Here’s an example from a piece I’m reading for the Holocaust fellowship, written by a philosophy professor:

    The fundamental assumption underlying natural law theory holds that, although people of good intent may legitimately disagree over many normative issues, ultimately there exist a universal set of underlying basic principles to which we all can and should agree.

    I say that the verb should be EXISTS…

  5. Great question! I always find it interesting to see that certain grammatical issues come up in different languages. This is a typical mistake many people here make too.

  6. JR

    Maybe Grisham should’ve just written:

    There were six ads in total.

    (But, then again, what do I know? I’m no Random House editor…)

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