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A goodly number

A reader takes The Sun to task for the multiplicity of errors in grammar in our pages. He is a teacher, and he wonders whether he should advise his students to avoid the paper, lest they be contaminated by its bad example.

The example he offers — "A relatively high NUMBER of Maryland high school students ARE..." — shows that he is well-intentioned but mistaken.

Number is one of those English words that can be either singular or plural, depending on context.

Attend: Several lawsuits were filed after the fire, and a number are pending. The number of successful lawsuits, however, is small. Nothing is objectionable about either sentence, and both should sound natural to a native speaker uncorrupted by faulty instruction in English class.

If my word on this isn’t good enough for you, say so in a comment, and I’ll post the relevant citations from Garner on Usage, Merriam-Webster, Fowler, Bernstein and the King James Version. But for the moment, I’m inclined to rest my aging wrists.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:02 AM | | Comments (6)


>But for the moment, I’m inclined to rest my aging wrists.

Of course a baby's wrists are aging, too; as well as the rest of his body parts. On the other hand (wrist?), I guess yours are just oldish.

Well, it would be an interesting distinction. But "aging," the OED says, has meant "Becoming aged, showing signs of advancing age" for a good long while. It cites the Common Place Philosopher from 1862: "Esteemed by all, though gouty, ageing, and careworn."

I am not gouty, though, and as for esteemed, well. ...

Whether the teacher persuades his students to stop reading the paper seems rather a moot point, as they may well be rendered functionally illiterate by the time he is done "teaching" them anyway.

Ben Zimmer, in his blog on the Oxford University Press site, has a related post, which is titled "Intractable Usage Disputes: 'Less' and 'None.'"

The url is

At some point in an English class, my daughter was instructed not to use "from" with "graduate." She says people "graduate high school" or "graduate college."

Textbooks for English classes in public schools should not be allowed to be used in classrooms unless the book has been edited by competent, working copy editors who have removed Miss Thistlebottom's hobgoblins from the text.

I am writing anessay on this very issue. I consider officials should enforce some strict measures in order to prevent further accidents.

I am writing an essay on this very issue. I consider officials should enforce some strict measures in order to prevent further accidents.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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