Tricky agreement question!
The other day, Carson sent me this question:
I saw a sign that reads “20 million pounds is distributed every year.” Janette and I contend that this is incorrect; however, her friend states it is right. Thoughts from the grammar queen?
(Let’s be clear here that the “grammar queen” moniker was his idea, not mine. I make no claims to any kind of royalty, grammatical or otherwise.)
Here’s my answer to his question:
You and Janette are correct – the verb should be plural.
If you’re talking about the number, the verb that goes with it should be singular; “20 million IS a big number.”
Since we’re talking about a quantity of things, however, the verb should be plural. We wouldn’t say “a thousand people IS marching on city hall this afternoon” even though the article that goes with “thousand” is “a,” which is singular.
Where this really gets people flummoxed is when we’re talking about percentages. In fact, I think I came up with this on the side of a cereal box a couple of years ago… hang on, let me see if I can find it…yep; here it is. The upshot of this problem is when we’re talking about ONE in some other number (whatever that number happens to be). We’re talking about ONE, so the verb that goes with it should be singular: “one in five relationships STARTS online,” “one in 250 million people IS a redhead,” that sort of thing. The problem is that people mistake the SUBJECT of those kinds of sentences (the ONE) with the MODIFIER (in the examples I gave, “relationships” and “people”) which is plural.
We have that same problem when it comes to other types of modifiers, too. “That pile of rocks IS in my way,” “that group of students IS preparing for an exam,” or “the majority of Americans IS in favor of gay marriage.” The subject of a sentence never comes in an “of” phrase, and “pile,” “group,” and “majority” are singular nouns.
I tell my students to figure out which verb to use by taking out the modifier, or the “of” phrase, and saying the sentence out loud. Personally, I wouldn’t say “A million IS distributed;” I would naturally say “A million ARE distributed,” so I go with the plural verb.