The majority of these second-guesses are wrong

There are some bits of usage that people are more likely to get wrong if they stop and try to get them right. I encountered one of the most noteworthy and commonly confounding cases in a recent edit, when I had to change “the majority was” to “the majority were” and “the remainder was” to “the remainder were.”

In ordinary speech, we generally have a natural feel for these things. “I have twenty friends over, and the majority of them are pretty drunk.” This is as natural as saying “more than half of them are pretty drunk” or “a lot of them are pretty drunk.” And you’ll notice that syntactically it’s the same kind of thing as “a lot of them are pretty drunk”: you have a singular – a lot, the majority – with a plural verb.

It’s that singular-with-plural thing that trips people up when they stop and look. They see “There were twenty messages; the majority of these were email and the remainder were voice mail,” and they think “majority: singular; remainder: singular” and so make the sentence “…the majority of these was email and the remainder was voice mail.” Now, does that read right to you? Really?

What’s going on here is the same as what goes on when we say “A lot of these people are drunk” rather than “A lot of these people is drunk.” The term – a lot, the majority, the remainder – is serving as an indefinite quantifier. The same occurs with percentage figures. We could say they are serving as collectives, but in North America we have a way of treating collectives as singulars much of the time: “Our team is winning” rather than “Our team are winning.” I think it’s more accurate to say that such terms as the majority and a lot are functioning similarly to numbers.

But the thing that makes this trickier is that there are also cases where we would use a singular conjugation because the word is functioning as a singular object. Consider “The majority is always right.” In this case, we’re referring to the majority as a mass entity, rather than collection of individuals: it is the fact of its being a majority that makes it right, and it is in its role as a collective majority that it is right. If, on the other hand, I had a set of individuals whom I grouped into three categories – those who are never right, those who are sometimes right, and those who are always right, on a predetermined subject or whatever subject – and I determined that the group of those who are always right (as individuals) made up more than half of the total of all three groups, I would say “The majority are always right.” Clearly, the meaning is different.

Here’s another quick example. Compare the following:

“You asked for flowers? A bunch are heading your way.”

“You asked for flowers? A bunch is heading your way.”

In the former, “a bunch” is an indefinite quantifier – a significant amount (with a vague sense of the size relative to a lot, a few, a buttload, etc.) are coming. In the latter, “a bunch” is a specific thing: several flowers grouped together and wrapped. So, too, with such things as “the majority”: conjugate according to whether you are speaking of the entity per se or really of the collection of individual composing it.

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One response to “The majority of these second-guesses are wrong

  1. A similar case lately mentioned on the American Dialect Society listserv: “13 inches of snow are expected.” This one can go both ways: if you conceptualize the snow as coming in discrete inches, then go with “are,” but if you consider “13 inches” to be a measurement of a mass object and thus itself a mass quantity (we could, after all, have 13.14159265 inches…), “is” functions suitably well, though it might not sound right to some ears.

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