‘A lot of’, ‘a number of’, ‘a couple of’ – singular or plural verb?

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more.

Although “a lot” is, grammatically speaking, a noun in the singular (like “a house” or “a book”), “a lot of” functions as a so-called quantifier. Quantifiers are used to express quantity or a number of objects; here are some of the most common:

some, all, many, much, few, a few, a lot of, lots of, a number of, a couple of, a little, little, no, …

Some languages (e.g. most Slavic languages) assign a number to the quantifiers themselves, and it is this number that determines the correct verb form (the quantifier itself becomes the subject of the sentence where it is present). English, however, works in a different way.

Quantifiers function as adjectives in English, no matter what their inner structure is, and they are never considered the subject of the sentence. The correct verb form is determined by the real subject of the sentence, i.e. by the noun or pronoun modified by the quantifier.

This is best illustrated using the quantifier “some”, which almost all learners quickly learn to use correctly:

Some dogs like to play.
Some water is being wasted right now.

Problems seem to arise when a quantifier that looks like a noun is used, such as “a lot of”, which looks like a singular noun but is not:

correct A lot of dogs like to play.
wrong A lot of dogs likes to play.
correct A lot of water is being wasted.
wrong A lot of water are being wasted.

or “lots of”, which looks like a plural noun but is not:

correct Lots of dogs like to play.
wrong Lots of dogs likes to play.
correct Lots of water is being wasted.
wrong Lots of water are being wasted.

Note that many and (a) few may also be used as plural pronouns, rather than quantifiers, as in the following quotation from the English version of the Bible:

Many are called, but few are chosen.

Similarly, much, (a) little, and a lot may be used as singular pronouns:

Much has been said about the subject.

Finally, all and some may be used as either singular or plural pronouns, depending on whether they represent a mass noun or a countable noun:

All is lost.
All have turned away.

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.