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October 26th, 2005

The number is but a number are / more about Veterans Day

by Barbara Wallraff


Fil Panlilio, of Atlanta, writes: “Which is correct: ‘There is a number of ...’ or ‘There are a number of ...’? My feeling is that since ‘number’ is singular, it needs a singular verb.”


Dear Fil: Well, um, not necessarily. “Number” — like, say, “audience” — is a collective noun. And it’s true that in American English, collective nouns that look singular (as these do: the word is “number,” not “numbers,” “audience,” not “audiences”) are usually treated as singular. “The audience is getting restless,” for instance. But whenever a plural verb better suits the logic of the idea being expressed, a plural verb is better English. For instance, “The audience are putting on their coats” — not “The audience is putting on its coats,” and please not a mixture of singular and plural like “The audience is putting on their coats.”

“Number,” though, is a slightly peculiar collective noun. Thank goodness, the rules for how to use it are straightforward. When you write or say “the number,” use a singular verb: “The number of people in the room is large” — not “The number of people are large.” But when you write or say “a number,” use a plural verb: “A number of people are coming” — not “A number of people is coming.” Similarly, “There are a number of people coming” — not “There is a number of ...”




Now I’m going to turn today’s column over to a reader, Karen Elizabeth Bush, of Rochester, Mich., who sent me this thought-provoking letter: “Your recent commentary about the misuse of an apostrophe in the name ‘Veterans Day’ sparked a criticism of my own. I wish it were beyond me (it’s not) to understand why we don’t just call the holiday ‘Armistice Day’ and be done with it.

“In the year 2005, we are politically correct instead of historically accurate. And so a celebration that was born as Armistice Day, and that was intended to celebrate the end of a war and honor the men who served in it, became ‘Veterans Day.’”

(Karen is right: Nov. 11 originally commemorated the signing of the armistice, or truce, that ended World War I, in 1918. In 1954 the holiday was renamed Veterans Day and its focus shifted toward honoring all veterans.)

“Armistice Day excluded no one. There was never anything in its name to suggest exclusion. It did, however, honor a war that was to end all wars, and it reminded America that peace, the cessation of hostilities, is worth celebration.

“The notion of a war to end wars was and is almost criminally naive — but that is no reason to scrap the ideals that inspired the cause. Let’s say ‘Armistice Day’ again, and use the day to honor all who have fought for a peaceful world. Armistice Day is a great name — a meaningful name. And it doesn’t have any apostrophes in it anywhere!”

Good points all — though, to be realistic, the name Veterans Day is probably here to stay. Still, I’d like to believe we can salute peace even as we salute our veterans.


Good points all — though, to be realistic, the name Veterans Day is probably here to stay. Still, I’d like to believe we can salute peace even as we salute our veterans.




© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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