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February 6, 2012 / dlw43

The phrase “a lot of” and “lots of”

Which is correct?

A lot of books is on the floor.


A lot of books are on the floor.

The answer depends on how the collective noun “lot” is being used.  Collective nouns are a subset of count nouns and can take both singular and plural verbs.  

Here is a list of collective nouns:

audience     band        class     committee    crowd

dozen           family      flock     group      heap

herd           jury         kind        lot      [the] number

public       staff         team

When the speaker uses a collective noun to indicate the group as a whole, the verb is singular.

Ex:  The team is playing well today.

It is rare, but a collective noun is sometimes used to indicate a situation in which group members are acting individually.  We can indicate the separate actions of individuals within this group by using a plural verb.

Ex: The team are dining with their loved ones tonight.

Back to “a lot”.  Does the speaker mean the books as a single entity, as in a set, or books as individual items within a group?  The catch is that we don’t know.  The speaker can make a case for using either a plural or singular verb; therefore, it is the listener who needs to know that the speaker means something slightly different when using a collective noun with a plural rather than singular verb.  So, though the combination of collective noun + of + plural count noun  + singular verb sounds awkward and is a rare occurrence, it is not necessarily grammatically incorrect. This is also true for all the other collective nouns besides “lot”.

And what about “lots of”? Well, that’s a bit easier.  A plural verb is always used if the noun that follows of is countable, a singular verb if the noun following of is noncountable.



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