Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English

Volume 18 – Exploring Recent Diachrony: Corpus Studies of Lexicogrammar and Language Practices in Late Modern English

Article Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical background: On idiomatisation and NP of NP constructions

3. Case study: Idiomatisation of a number of, a group of and a majority of

3.1 Aims

3.2 Methodology and data retrieval

3.3 Diachronic data and analysis of a number/group/majority of

3.3.1 A number of

3.3.2 A group of

3.3.3 A majority of

4. Concluding remarks and further research




‘These points stated, a number of problems remain’: A corpus-based analysis of the idiomatisation of collective noun-based constructions [1]

Yolanda Fernández-Pena
University of Vigo


English collective noun-based subjects taking prepositional complements introduced by of (i.e. of-PPs) often trigger controversy regarding the grammatical feature number, as the plural nominal elements they contain within the of-PP may affect the number of the main verb (e.g. a group of British skiers were horrified; BNC: CCK 737). Since this plural prepositional constituent has been identified as one of the key factors in the idiomatisation and the subsequent grammaticalisation of constructions such as a lot of or a bunch of (Brems 2003, 2004, 2011; Traugott 2008a, 2008b; Traugott & Trousdale 2013), the present study aims to contribute to previous investigations by exploring homologous collective noun-based constructions. In particular, this paper will broaden the scope of earlier case studies by providing a qualitative and quantitative diachronic corpus-based study which examines the idiomatisation (i.e. the syntactic fixation and the (potential) grammatical meaning and/or function) of three constructions: a number of NPL, a group of NPL and a majority of NPL. Exploring the interplay between syntactic, semantic and lexical issues has unveiled data and trends which confirm the idiomatisation of a number of while they have also left us with significant yet inconclusive results for the other two structures. In any case, the results have shed some light on the evolution as well as the present-day patterns of these three collective noun-based constructions, and they have revealed the need to carry out further research in this regard.

1. Introduction

Variation in verbal agreement is characteristic of English collective nouns, here understood as nominal elements “designating a group of animates or inanimates” (i.e. committee, party, series or number; Dekeyser 1975: 35, footnote 1). Despite being morphologically singular, traditionally these nouns are said to take singular or plural verbal forms (i.e. syntactic or semantic/notional agreement) depending on whether we conceptualise the collective noun as “one aggregate body” or as “an aggregate entity whose separate constituents are emphasized” (Dekeyser 1975: 35), as in (1) and (2) respectively. [2]

(1) The crowd here is really thick despite the weather.
(2) … the crowd are on their feet, roaring and waving their arms.
(Depraetere 2003: 86)

This flexibility in verbal agreement patterns is particularly salient when collective nominal elements take plural of-PPs: they often interfere in the subject-verb agreement relationship. In fact, the of-PP which tends to co-occur with collective nouns such as bunch, crowd, group, majority, number or set (i.e. ‘quantifying collectives’ in Biber et al. 1999: 249; ‘number-transparent nouns’ in Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 503) has been identified as a determining factor of verbal agreement in binominal subjects. [3] As examples (3) and (4) below illustrate, the morphological (and semantic) plurality of the noun within the of-PP – i.e. bees and cockneys here – interacts with verbal agreement inasmuch as it often favours a higher proportion of plural verb number, thus overriding grammatical (i.e. singular) agreement with the collective noun – swarm and crowd here (see Dekeyser 1975: 45–51; Fernández-Pena 2014, 2015a, 2015b).

(3) When a swarmSG of beesPL leavePL to found a new colony, they tend to build combs with the same orientation [BNC: FEV 259]
(4) The crowdSG of cockneysPL werePL singing along [BNC: BPA 62]
(Fernández-Pena 2015a: 104)

The plural verbal agreement in examples (3) and (4) may well have originated as a consequence of the phenomenon of attraction or proximity concord, i.e. the syntactic proximity between the plural nouns bees and cockneys and leave and were could have determined the preference for the plural verb number. Attraction, however, involves ungrammaticality, as in The time for fun and games are over (see Bock & Miller 1991: 52; see also Bock et al. 2001; Eberhard et al. 2005 and Bock et al. 2006). In examples (3) and (4), by contrast, although the plural nouns have also influenced the verb number, the flexible verbal patterning of collective nouns renders the sentences perfectly grammatical.

Previous literature (see e.g. Brems 2003, 2004, 2011; Traugott 2008a, 2008b) has already commented on the influence of the of-PP on verb number with respect to the progressive grammaticalisation undergone by some binominal constructions taking of-PPs such as a lot of or a bunch of in the history of the English language. Along these lines, the collective noun-based constructions under scrutiny here, e.g. a number of NPL or a majority of NPL, appear to be deeply entrenched in English as frequent (nearly idiomatic) constructions selecting plural verbal forms and expressing quantificational meaning. In light of these results and the previous literature on homologous binominal constructions, my study will present a diachronic corpus-based analysis with two main aims: (a) to explore the correlation between the patterns of verbal agreement in the binominal constructions a number of, a group of and a majority of and their degree of idiomatisation in the recent history of English; and (b) to examine how collocational restrictions and plural of-PPs may have conditioned their patterns of verbal agreement in Present-Day English. The data for this paper have been retrieved from the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), which covers the period from 1810 to 2009. The results have been scrutinised taking into account syntactic (e.g. premodification and verbal patterns, type of article) and semantic (e.g. grammatical meaning) factors.

The organisation of the paper is as follows. Section 2 offers an overview of the theoretical background on idiomatisation. Sections 3.1 and 3.2 describe the aims, methodology and data retrieval procedure, followed by the quantitative and qualitative analysis of the diachronic data retrieved for a number of, a group of and a majority of in Section 3.3. The paper ends with conclusions and questions for further research in Section 4.

2. Theoretical background: On idiomatisation and NP of NP constructions

The question of idiomatisation has been the object of study in many investigations revolving around the evolution and fixation of a structure. Authors such as Akimoto (2002: 16–17) define it as follows:

[T]he linguistic process, both synchronic and diachronic, of reorganizing certain phrases into fixed/fossilized expressions, whose meanings cannot be deduced from their constituents […]. Idiomatization usually involves semantic change, lexical fixing and syntactic ossification. […] semantically, idiomatization is a process whereby meaning becomes more opaque, and, syntactically, the phrasal unity becomes more fixed than before.

The identification and the clear delimitation of an ‘idiom’, however, is not always an easy task. In fact, as Brinton & Traugott (2005: 54–55) acknowledge, idiomatisation (or idiomaticisation) must be regarded as a “graded concept, with combinations ranging from more to less idiomatic in nature”. Nonetheless, these authors provide us with different features usually present in an idiomatic expression, namely “semantic opacity” (i.e. the meaning of the construction is not deducible from its parts), “grammatical deficiency” (i.e. not allowing free syntactic combinations), and “lack of substitutability” for synonymous lexical items. As important as these characteristics may be, Brinton & Traugott (2005) also emphasise the essential influence of routinisation on the consolidation of idiomatic expressions since it is only with considerable frequency of use that the expression becomes entrenched in the speakers’ mind, thus being not only socially accepted but also “‘usual’ and unremarkable” in that language (Hopper & Traugott 2003: 207–208).

Idiomatisation and the different syntactic and semantic changes it brings about are closely (though not necessarily) connected to the process of grammaticalisation, that is to “the change whereby lexical items and constructions come in certain linguistic contexts to serve grammatical functions” (Hopper & Traugott 2003: 18). One of the factors involved in the reinterpretation of lexical elements as grammatical items is precisely their progressive idiomatisation in a given language. This has been the case in quantificational NP of NP structures such as a lot of (Traugott 2008a, 2008b). Originally, in this construction lot was a full nominal element heading the complex NP and denoting lexical meaning, as in (5):

(5) Aȝȝ wass i þiss middellærd Summ lott off gode sawless.
always was in this middle-earth certain group of good souls
‘There was always in this world a group of good souls’. (c.1200 Ormulum, 19150 [MED lot n1, 2e])
(Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 24)

However, as Hopper & Traugott (2003: 207–208) claim, the frequency in use of a particular linguistic item/collocational pattern may favour its gradual syntactic fixation and subsequent semantic opacity, while its original lexical meaning is progressively ‘bleached’ or lost. Hence, the frequent co-occurrence of lot with plural of-PPs started to trigger a “pragmatic ‘invited inference’ of quantity” which eventually prompted the loss of lexical meaning (i.e. desemanticisation in Brinton 1996: 54) and function (i.e. decategorialisation in Brinton and Traugott 2005: 107 or decategorisation in Traugott and Trousdale 2013: 116) of lot (Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 26). As a consequence, lot lost some of the prototypical properties and the function of full nominal elements and, in turn, acquired both a new grammatical status as a modifying quantificational element in English and grammatical meaning, as illustrated in (6) (Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 25–26).

(6) He is only young, with a lot of power. (Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 25)

As a result of the process of subjectification, i.e. the drawing of pragmatic inferences based on the speaker’s subjective belief (Traugott 1995: 31), the originally partitive construction headed by lot and postmodified by an of-PP, as in (7), has been reanalysed. The complex NP is now understood as a construction that consists of a complex modifier, a lot of, and a nominal element that assumes the role of lexical head contributing to the semantics of the whole NP and controlling verbal agreement, as illustrated in (8) and (9). [4] Of paramount importance in this regard is also the collocation with abstract nouns such as souls in (5) and the non-count abstract nouns power in (6) and love in (9). The extension in collocational range from concrete to abstract nouns within the of-PP signals the loss of lexical head status of lot and thus blocks its partitive interpretation (Brems 2011: 126–131).

(7) (partitive) the worthy Mr. Skeggs is busy and bright, for a lot of goods is to be fitted out for auction. (Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 25)
(8) (quantificational) Sir There were a lot of fine beasts pushing along in the front. (Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 211)
(9) a lot of land (for sale) a lot of land/love
Head Modifier Modifier Head
[[Ni [of Nj]] = [parti – wholej]] > [[N of] Nj]] = [large quant. – entityj]]
(adapted from Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 25)

The changes in form and meaning undergone by a lot of have also been attested in homologous constructions in English: a bunch of and a load of (Brems 2011), a bit of and a shred of (Traugott & Trousdale 2013), to name a few. Their similarities in structure and/or meaning and the collocational restrictions that they have developed across time have led Traugott & Trousdale (2013) to put forward a constructionalist explanation that can account for these particular structures. Their conclusion is that the changes described above should be understood as a process of ‘constructionalisation’. In other words, the originally lexical meaning and the function of some binominal structures have been reanalysed and they have thus acquired similar grammatical meaning(s) and function(s), which allows us to consider them as ‘constructions’, that is, as parings of a particular form (i.e. NP of NP) and a particular meaning (i.e. quantificational) which conform to the abstract construction referred to as ‘quantifier construction’ (Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 17). [5] In this paper, I take these studies as a starting point for my investigation, yet it should be noted that the term construction will be used henceforth as synonym for ‘structure’ or ‘syntactic configuration’, rather than in the strict constructionalist sense put forward above.

In my previous research (Fernández-Pena 2014, 2015a, 2015b), I have attested the relevance of of-PPs for verbal number (i.e. favouring plural agreement) in similar NP of NP constructions, thus showing how the morphology, the (syntactic and structural) complexity and the semantics of the material within the of-PP significantly condition the patterns of verbal agreement of 23 collective nouns such as group or bunch in (10) and (11), respectively.

(10) A group of children were trying to outwail the wind.
(11) A random bunch of people are waiting.
(Fernández-Pena 2015a: 2)

Along these lines, in this study I have carried out an elaborate and thorough analysis of the collocational patterns and restrictions of 3 of those 23 collective noun-based constructions, i.e. a number of NPL VPL, a group of NPL VPL and a majority of NPL VPL (see Fernández-Pena 2016, forthc. 2017 for a pilot study). The historical data that will be presented here aim at accounting for their diachronic evolution in terms of syntax and semantics so as to detect tendencies which can lead us to equate them to already quantificational/grammatical elements such as a lot of. In particular, this study will explore the extent to which the preference for plural patterns of agreement attested in Present-Day English can be accounted for in terms of idiomatisation and/or constructionalisation processes. Thus, in the ensuing sections I will present a corpus-based study which tackles different syntactic and semantic indicators (e.g. plural verbal patterns, semantic opacity) that can help us assess the extent of syntactic fixation and/or semantic bleaching in the constructions a number of, a group of and a majority of.

3. Case study: Idiomatisation of a number of, a group of and a majority of

In this section, I will first discuss the aims and the methodological basis of my study (Sections 3.1, 3.2). Then, I will present the results of the corpus-based analysis, examining the potential grammatical function and/or meaning of the three constructions under scrutiny: a number of, a group of and a majority of (Section 3.3).

3.1 Aims

The study reported on here aims at providing a qualitative and quantitative diachronic study of the degree of idiomatisation of collective noun-based constructions taking of-PPs. The scope of my research is limited to three constructions: a number of, a majority of and a group of, which in previous investigations in Present-Day British and American English (Fernández-Pena 2015a, 2015c, 2016, forthc. 2017) showed marked colligational patterns (i.e. their rates of plural verbal forms exceed 97%, 82% and 64%, respectively) as well as a considerably high relative frequency (i.e. the three amount to over 50% of the total number of instances of the 23 collective noun-based constructions studied there). To my knowledge, no diachronic investigations have been carried out to date in this regard. Several studies have already pointed out the quantificational meaning and/or function of a number of (Reid 1991: 280ff.; Berg 1998: 54ff.; Biber et al. 1999: 248, 257ff.; Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 501ff.) and of the majority of (Berg 1998: 54ff.); however, none provides historical support for their claims. Hence, the contribution of my investigation relies on the diachronic data to be presented, which will provide crucial support for such claims and which will unveil relevant tendencies and similarities with the trends attested in homologous constructions in the English language (see Section 2).

3.2 Methodology and data retrieval

For the purposes of this study I have retrieved data from one of the largest electronic historical corpora of the English language currently available, namely the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), which comprises 406,232,024 words from (non)fictional books, magazines and newspapers published between 1810 and 2009, and which can be accessed through the web interface at the Brigham Young University. Further historical corpora like A Representative Corpus of Historical English Registers (ARCHER), the Penn Parsed Corpus of Modern British English (PPCMBE), and the Corpus of Late Modern English Texts (CLMET), covering the period 1600–1920, have also been surveyed so as to obtain data from British English for a contrastive analysis between both varieties. Unfortunately, none of the British English sources provided enough results to carry out a robust quantitative analysis and therefore this investigation will only draw firm conclusions for the tendencies in American English. [6]

As for the data retrieval procedure, as already indicated, I have restricted the scope of the study to three collective nouns: number, group, majority. The data from the historical corpus were obtained in various steps. First, I searched for instances containing the following sequence of elements:

(i) article: definite or indefinite; although my focus is on indefinite constructions, i.e. a N1 of N2, definite constructions were also retrieved for contrastive and illustrative purposes;
(ii) the singular collective nouns number, majority or group;
(iii) an of-PP consisting of the preposition of, an optional element (e.g. a possible determiner and/or premodifier) and an overtly-marked plural noun (e.g. boys, things, etc.); [7]
(iv) an inflected verbal form.

The search patterns used in COHA were the following: ‘(a/the) (number/majority/group) of (*) *.[NN2] *.[(VBZ/VBDZ/VDZ/VHZ/VVZ)]’ for singular verbs, and ‘(a/the) (number/majority/group) of (*) *.[NN2] *.[(VBR/VBDR/VD0/VH0/VV0)]’ for plural verbal forms. Note that the elements in parentheses represent different choices made when using a particular pattern (i.e. the parentheses themselves do not belong to the query syntax but are used here for clarification purposes). After discarding those examples not valid for the analysis, the total number of hits was 4,034.

In a second step, in order to illustrate aspects such as the frequency of the constructions over time or the premodification patterns that they take, I have made use of the normalised and absolute frequencies provided by the corpus interface (111,409 hits) without further scrutiny (i.e. these data have not been manually analysed and pruned for this paper but this will be considered for future research).

Following Brems (2011), Traugott (2008a, 2008b) and Traugott & Trousdale (2013), the parameters that I will control for here as possible indicators of the syntactic fixation of the structures pertain to their collocational restrictions in terms of:

(i) restrictions in premodification patterns (in quantifier constructions premodification is restricted to quantificational elements reinforcing the grammatical meaning of the construction, e.g. a whole bunch of studies; Brems 2011: 195);
(ii) specialisation with the indefinite article (decategorialisation of the nominal status of N1 applies only in indefinite constructions; Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 116);
(iii) patterns of verbal agreement (in binominal quantifier constructions, a N1 of N2, verb number is typically determined by N2; Brems 2011: 129).

As regards semantic opacity, the 4,034 instances retrieved from COHA were individually analysed so as to determine whether they convey grammatical/quantificational nuances, such as those evoked by homologous grammaticalised constructions like a lot of, or whether, by contrast, the collective noun has not undergone desemanticisation and thus still retains its original lexical meaning.

3.3 Diachronic data and analysis of a number/group/majority of

In this section I will present the historical data retrieved for the three constructions under scrutiny, analysing in each case different syntactic and semantic variables which may be taken as decisive indicators of idiomatisation.

As already noted, collective noun-based subjects taking of-PPs show a clear preference for plural verbal patterns in Present-Day English (see Fernández-Pena 2014, 2015a, 2015b), the plural of-PP itself being adduced as the main linguistic rationale for such a finding. This plural prepositional constituent will prove to be pivotal in the syntactic fixation of binominal structures which acquire grammatical meaning and function in English, as reanalysis of N1 and, subsequently, of the whole NP as a quantificational element, is prompted by the frequent use of plural nouns in N2 in these constructions. Such assertion will be assessed in light of the data obtained for three collective noun-based subjects which have already been discussed in the literature (see Section 3.1) but for which no historical evidence and support have been provided to date, to the best of my knowledge.

The ensuing sections will present historical data for a number of, a group of and a majority of. The different syntactic and semantic parameters considered will help us determine the extent to which they show idiomatisation, while tracing a correlation between the evolution of these structures in the recent history of English and the patterns of verbal agreement that they take in Present-Day English.

3.3.1 A number of

In Present-Day English, a number of takes almost exclusively plural verbal forms (over 97% in Fernández-Pena 2015c). As noted above, a number of is, amongst the three constructions studied here, the one which seems to be clearly accepted as a quantifier element by most scholars (see Reid 1991: 280ff.; Berg 1998: 54ff.; Biber et al. 1999: 248, 257ff., 278; Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 350, 501ff.).

To start with syntactic fixation, the patterns of verbal agreement of the construction reveal a clear predominance of plural agreement already in the early 19th century, as Figure 1 and examples (12) and (13) illustrate.

Percentages and absolute frequency of agreement with a number of in COHA

Figure 1. Percentages and absolute frequency of agreement with a number of in COHA.

(12) A numberSG of horsemenPL werePL seen far below slowly advancing along the road [COHA: 1849 FIC Sketch-BookGeoffrey]
(13) A numberSG of ladiesPL havePL assumed the responsibilities of visitors of the school [COHA: 1852 MAG NorthAmRev]

As Figure 1 displays, singular verbal forms with a number of are negligible, being almost limited to one instance per period, except for the period 1910s–1950s. What the data show, thus, is that a number of was already considerably fixed in terms of agreement patterns in the 19th century: verb number is not determined by N1, number, but by the plural element in the of-PP. This supports the decategorialisation or the loss of the lexical function of number. Besides, this finding is in keeping with the quantificational function of a number of claimed by some scholars and with the expected development in an idiomatised/grammaticalised structure (see a lot of in Section 2).

From a constructionalist point of view, syntax would not suffice to explain the idiomatisation of a number of, as quantifier constructions have not only a particular form associated but also a particular meaning (see Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 17). Hence, a qualitative analysis of the instances retrieved from COHA was carried out. The results showed that in most cases the lexical meaning of number (i.e. “the precise sum or aggregate of any collection of individuals, things or persons”; OED s.v. number I.1; emphasis in the original), has been bleached in favour of a quantificational reading denoting “a [large or considerable] collection or aggregate of persons or things, not precisely reckoned or counted” (OED s.v. number II.10).

(14) A numberSG of these papersPL appearPL to have been a correspondence between this gentleman and his more zealous brethren. [COHA: 1827 FIC TennesseanANovel]
(15) From this, a numberSG of important consequencesPL followPL [COHA: 1990 N ThinkingSociologically]
(16) a numberSG of his poemsPL havePL been sold during those same years [COHA: 1962 NF EnglishLiterature]

As (14), (15) and (16) illustrate, a number of denotes a quantificational nuance, making reference to an indefinite quantity of entities or individuals, which, on the one hand, is corroborated by the rest of the instances in the database, and, on the other, resembles the grammatical meaning of a lot of. Hence, we can contend that the historical data support the desemanticisation and the subsequent semantic opacity which is attributed to a number of in comprehensive grammars and some other contemporary works. It should be emphasised that such a semantic change must have taken place long before the time span covered by this pilot study since, according to the data presented here, it is well-established already in Late Modern English.

The argumentation presented above finds further support if we contrast the data and the tendencies shown by a number of with those of its definite counterpart, the number of. According to the parameters of idiomatisation and grammaticalisation under consideration here, syntactic fixation and semantic opacity should only affect the indefinite structure (Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 116). The data retrieved for the number of meet our expectations. As Figure 2 corroborates, in the number of the selected verb number is predominantly singular (over 95%), with plural verbal patterns being very marginal (below 5%). Verbal agreement in this case clearly reveals the lexical function that number performs in this construction, being the lexical head of the complex NP and, thus, the controller of agreement – i.e. “the element which determines the agreement” (Corbett 2006: 4) – as in (17) and (18).

Percentages and absolute frequency of agreement with the number of in COHA

Figure 2. Percentages and absolute frequency of agreement with the number of in COHA.

(17) In addition to these two stages, a third stage will appear if the numberSG of personsPL isSG increased sufficiently [COHA: 1929 NF OurEconomicSystem]
(18) The numberSG of seamenPL wasSG fixed at ten thousand [COHA: 1854 NF HistoryEngland]

Agreement, however, is not the only aspect conditioned by the selection of the definite article. As (19), (20) and (21) below illustrate, the meaning of the number of differs from the quantificational nuance expressed by the indefinite counterpart.

(19) The numberSG of volunteersPL isSG recorded as 150 in 1970, 180 in 1980 [COHA: 1997 NF AmericanArtMuseum]
(20) The numberSG of graperiesPL hasSG annually increased [COHA: 1865 NF WoodwardsGraperies]
(21) The numberSG of guestsPL isSG limited to sixty [COHA: 1904 NEWS NYT-Reg]

In these instances, contrary to those of a number of, no quantificational reading is possible, as in all the cases analysed number does not quantify the entities in N2. Instead, the lexical meaning of number discussed above seems to be retained. In this particular structure the focus and the semantic core of the NP lies in number itself, as evinced by the type of verbs that it takes, most of them referring to rises, increases, declines, limitations, etc. affecting the precise number of entities that the subject denotes.

All in all, these data suggest that, when selecting the definite article, number functions as a fully lexical element determining not only the number of the verbal form but also the meaning of the whole noun phrase. By contrast, the indefinite structure a number of shows both the syntactic fixation and the semantic opacity expected in an idiomatised structure with grammatical function and quantificational meaning, as in the case of a lot of.

The last indicator of idiomatisation considered here pertains to the restrictions in premodification patterns. The results obtained are presented in Figure 3:

Percentages and absolute frequency of a number of with and without premodification in COHA

Figure 3. Percentages and absolute frequency of a number of with and without premodification in COHA.

Figure 3 contrasts the general data obtained from COHA for those cases in which a number of takes no premodification (22) with those in which it accepts premodification (23). The results show how the latter suffer a progressive decrease in frequency over time.

(22) A number of books are on the floor next to or beneath the man’s chair. [COHA: 1824 FIC LettersFoundIn]
(23) A great number of new banks were also established by men who possessed neither capital nor experience [COHA: 1820 NF RemarksOnPresent]

A more detailed analysis of premodification patterns has revealed an increase in the variability of the premodifiers of number across time, with large being by far the most frequent premodifying adjective (followed by other adjectives also denoting large quantities such as great or considerable).

Percentages and absolute frequency of a MOD number of in COHA

Figure 4. Percentages and absolute frequency of a MOD number of in COHA.

Despite these results, as discussed above, the rate of premodified structures significantly diminishes across time and is outnumbered by the proportion of instances in which number is not premodified. Subsequently, we can safely claim that, from Late Modern English to Present-Day English, the acceptance of premodification in the construction a number of has been significantly restricted. This observation finds statistical support in COHA (χ2(3)=796.95, p<.0001) and, hence, further corroborates the syntactic fixation of a number of. [8]

In brief, the data presented for a number of allow us to support prior claims made as far as its grammatical status is concerned. On the one hand, as the qualitative analysis showed, this structure denotes a quantificational nuance comparable to that of homologous quantifier constructions. Syntactic fixation, on the other hand, has been observed in the plural patterns of verbal agreement and in the significant decline in the acceptance of premodification. Besides, the selection of the indefinite article constituted further evidence for the idiomatisation of a number of, as quantificational meaning and function are only possible when number occurs in the indefinite construction, which provides further evidence in favour of the routinisation and entrenchment of this expression as a quantificational item. The definite structure, the number of, by contrast, retains both the lexical meaning and function of number.

3.3.2 A group of

Among the three structures examined in this paper, a group of showed the greatest variation in terms of verbal agreement in Present-Day English, with plural agreement in about 64% of the instances analysed in Fernández-Pena (2015c). However, plural verbal agreement patterns are still relevant, considering that this collective noun is one of the three most frequent ones from the set of 23 collectives examined in Fernández-Pena (2015a). This considerable frequency of use and the still noticeable preference for plural agreement patterns are in fact the main reasons justifying the diachronic analysis carried out in this regard.

Very few references can be found in the literature about a group of, except for its consideration as an expression which takes plural of-PPs and, thus, accepts plural verbal forms (Biber et al. 1999: 185; Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 503). Such an argumentation seems to find support in the historical data retrieved in this study, as displayed in Figure 5 .

Percentages and absolute frequency of agreement with a group of in COHA

Figure 5. Percentages and absolute frequency of agreement with a group of in COHA.

Figure 5 presents the patterns of verbal agreement of a group of from the early 19th century to the 2000s. As expected, based on the Present-Day data, plural verb number is the most frequent agreement choice in each of the decades examined. In this vein, this structure would resemble quantificational binominal constructions (i.e. a lot of or a number of) since the head and hence the controller of agreement is not group but the noun being preceded by of. A further parallelism with a number of is found in the patterns of verbal agreement of the definite construction the group of. As was the case with the number of, when group takes the definite article, verb number is predominantly singular. For the group of, however, COHA yielded very few tokens, i.e. a total of 39 tokens for the two centuries, which does not allow us to carry out a statistical analysis. These data will therefore not be considered in the ensuing discussion.

Putting these similarities with a number of aside, what Figure 5 also reveals is a gradually increasing trend towards singular verbal patterns which turns out to be statistically significant (χ2(3)=12.24, p=0.0066). As noted above, plural agreement is still the predominant verb number in Present-Day English, with plural verbal forms in almost 60% of the instances retrieved for this period. Yet, the data in Figure 5 still point to a rising tendency of singular agreement which, in any case, does not confirm the decategorialisation of group as a full nominal element (i.e. it still controls agreement) and hence is not in keeping with the expected results in an idiomatised structure. Thus, notwithstanding the still high frequency of plural agreement, I can only contend that agreement does not constitute a reliable predictor of syntactic fixation in this case.

Premodification has also been explored in view of the need to consider further syntactic variables accounting for the frequency of plural verbal patterns of a group of in Present-Day English and for its potential idiomatisation. Thus, as in the case of a number of reported above, I have surveyed COHA so as to examine the historical evolution of the restrictions in premodification of a group of. Hence, as Figure 6 illustrates, significant tendencies have been unveiled.

Percentages and absolute frequency of a group of with and without premodification in COHA

Figure 6. Percentages and absolute frequency of a group of with and without premodification in COHA.

While those cases in which a group of takes no premodification (24) decrease during the late 19th and the 20th century, instances accepting premodification (25) show a progressive and highly significant increase (χ2(3)=19.46, p=0.0002). In light of these results, syntactic fixation seems to find no support in premodification either.

(24) A group of sailors come to the front with the captain. [COHA: 1832 FIC SpanishHusband]
(25) A considerable group of men were standing about the “World” bulletin, stopping, reading and passing on [COHA: 1863 FIC Shoulder-Straps]

A closer look at premodification, however, reveals relevant data in this regard. Figure 7 below focuses on those instances in which a group of takes premodification and presents data for its five most frequent premodifiers: small (26), large (27), little (28), new and whole. A further category, ‘rest preMOD’, groups a wider range of less frequent premodifiers (e.g. certain, remarkable or considerable), with absolute frequencies ranging from 1 to 44 in the whole corpus.

(26) A small group of people appear in the wings on the opposite side of the stage [COHA: 1927 FIC Mov:JazzSingerThe]
(27) a large group of individuals organize their common life “to promote the general welfare.” [COHA: 1937 MAG Harpers]
(28) A little group of soldiers were chatting in low tone [COHA 1902 FIC DaughterSioux]

Percentages and absolute frequency of a MOD group of in COHA

Figure 7. Percentages and absolute frequency of a MOD group of in COHA.

The results of this more fine-grained analysis of premodification illustrate, on the one hand, a decrease in the category gathering the less frequent modifiers of group and thus a decline in the variability of the premodifiers that group accepts. On the other hand, this tendency correlates with an increase in the frequency of small. The data show that, over the two centuries covered by the corpus, small progressively increases its presence in the premodification patterns of a group of. In quantifier constructions premodification is normally restricted to intensifying expressions which reinforce their quantifier interpretation as is the case of whole in a whole bunch of people (Brems 2011: 112). In this case, as already commented, the most frequent premodifier is small, hence a group of seems to deviate from some other binominal constructions in that it is frequently associated to small quantities of individuals (cf. a whole bunch/load/heap of; Brems 2011: 191–200). Anyway, statistical tests contrasting the data for small with those for the rest of the premodifiers confirm the significance of this increasing collocational restriction (χ2(3)=48.61, p<.0001). As a result, although in principle premodification patterns seem to be on the increase, the results obtained bear out the correlation between this rising trend and the increasingly frequent collocation with a particular premodifier in this construction, thus evincing certain syntactic fixation.

A final remark is in order here. As already noted, frequency in use is essential for the entrenchment and subsequent fixation of a construction in a language (Hopper & Traugott 2003: 207–208). The evaluation of the syntactic fixation of a group of yielded few positive results, yet we still found some significant tendencies which were given further consideration. In this vein, data for the relative frequency of a group of and its collocation with the indefinite article are worth noting at this point.

Normalised frequency (per 10,000 words) of a group of and the group of in COHA

Figure 8. Normalised frequency (per 10,000 words) of a group of and the group of in COHA.

In Figure 8 the historical evolution of both a group of and the group of is presented. As the data show, differences between both structures are remarkable (χ2(3)=355.42, p<.0001). Whereas the definite construction yields very few results in general and remains quite constant over time, the data for a group of reveal a clear increase which is quite noticeable from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The normalised frequencies are still too low to put forward any firm conclusion. Yet, the data presented deserve further consideration so as to determine whether this increase in frequency of the indefinite construction could be an indication of incipient idiomatisation, and whether idiomatisation is likely to consolidate in the near future.

As for the qualitative analysis of a group of, no evidence of semantic bleaching and opacity can be claimed.

(29) Next day, a group of officers were seen eying the break curiously. [COHA: 1888 MAG Century]
(30) A group of trees make a canopy over the spot, which is near the carriage road [COHA: 1896 NEWS NYT-Reg]
(31) … as soon as the group of staffofficers was seen, the enemy’s guns began paying their respects [COHA: 1897 MAG Century]
(32) Then the group of divers makes its way cross current to a ledge looking directly out on the ocean. [COHA: 1995 NEWS Denver]

As examples (29)–(32) illustrate, a group of can be said to resemble homologous constructions such as a lot of or a bunch of in that it may refer to an indefinite number of the entities specified in the N2. This remark aside, it remains to be determined whether this is really a quantificational nuance or whether group still retains its original lexical meaning in all the examples analysed (i.e. “a number of things (in earlier use esp. natural objects) [also people or animals] located or occurring in close proximity, so as to form a collective unity”; OED s.v. group, 2a,b). Given the difficulties of determining the potential semantic opacity of this construction, I can only conclude that a group of in some cases seems to evoke the inference of quantity already established in grammaticalised binominal quantifiers, but further research is needed to confirm the claim.

In sum, as the data from COHA for a group of show, we have observed how plural agreement is still the most frequent verb number, how premodification patterns display significant restrictions in the two centuries surveyed, and how the frequency of a group of has significantly increased and outnumbers that of the group of. The results presented, however, fall short of robust data to confirm the syntactic fixation of a group of and they even reveal a remarkable increasing trend towards the singular agreement. The qualitative analysis does not yield conclusive results either, as no clear indications of desemanticisation could be found. The evidence displayed seems to present a group of as a construction exhibiting some positive evidence for potential idiomatisation; its current status being neither lexical nor grammatical, but possibly an intermediate stage between both as in a hybrid state.

3.3.3 A majority of

Prior literature has already assigned quantificational meaning and function to majority, being even compared to the quantifier most, although the references concern only the definite construction the majority of (Reid 1991: 219ff.; Berg 1998: 54). Historical studies on binominal quantifiers, however, have only attested syntactic fixation and semantic opacity in indefinite constructions (Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 116). It is in this vein that this subsection will focus on a majority of, examining any possible indicators of idiomatisation in this indefinite construction which may account for its verbal patterns in Present-Day English (over 82% of plural verbal forms in Fernández-Pena 2015c).

As regards the syntactic fixation of a majority of, the data indicate an overwhelming preference for plural verbal patterns, a finding which would in principle confirm the expectations for this particular parameter in an idiomatic binominal quantifier.

Percentages and absolute frequency of agreement with a majority of in COHA

Figure 9. Percentages and absolute frequency of agreement with a majority of in COHA.

As was the case with a number of, Figure 9 presents very marginal results for singular patterns, an observation which is in favour of the decategorialisation and syntactic fixation of a majority of. Thus, as argued for the two previous constructions, agreement seems to be controlled not by majority but by the plural N2 preceding the main verb, as examples (33) and (34) illustrate.

(33) A majoritySG of casesPL arePL affected in that way [COHA: 1887 MAG Century]
(34) a majoritySG of CongressmenPL don’tPL want to get involved [COHA: 1971 NEWS WallStJrnl]

By contrast, this case shows certain particularities which set it apart from the preceding constructions. One of these relates to the agreement patterns of its definite counterpart, the majority of, as displayed in Figure 10.

Percentages and absolute frequency of agreement with the majority of in COHA

Figure 10. Percentages and absolute frequency of agreement with the majority of in COHA.

In keeping with Berg’s (1998) findings, we only find plural agreement patterns with the majority of, as in (35) and (36), with singular agreement showing rates which do not exceed 2.5%.

(35) the majoritySG of menPL arePL imperfectly educated [COHA: 1877 NF HistoryConflict]
(36) the majoritySG of personsPL doPL not believe in their existence [COHA: 1913 FIC TTembarom]

In light of these data, one can be tempted to conclude that N2 has assumed the lexical function of majority within the NP in both a majority of and the majority of, serving as head of the phrase and controller of agreement in both cases. We must take into account, however, that the results displayed in Figure 10 provide counterevidence to idiomatisation, as syntactic fixation of verbal patterns is expected to be attested only in indefinite constructions (Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 116; see also a number of in Section 3.3.1). Thus, if there is also syntactic fixation in the definite counterpart, chances are that agreement can no longer be taken as a reliable indicator of idiomatisation here.

If we turn to semantics, the qualitative analysis of the data also reveals remarkable parallelisms between a majority of, in (37) and (38), and the majority of, in (39) and (40), which further complicate the assessment of the results.

(37) Some of them were seized; but a majority of the magistrates were in favor of the introduction of negroes [COHA: 1896 NF StoriesOfGeorgia]
(38) The treaty will go into effect, for 20 years, when a majority of the signers have ratified. [COHA: 1949 MAG Time]
(39) But I reckon the majority of men are too deep for a woman. [COHA: 1896 FIC AnArkansasPlanter]
(40) The majority of Monegasques are now delighted to have her presiding over the royal household. [COHA: 1960 MAG SatEvePost]

These examples suggest that, contrary to number, no differences in meaning can be discerned between a majority of and the majority of. In fact, as (37)–(40) illustrate, quantificational readings, i.e. references to an indeterminate number of entities, are possible in both constructions but, as in the case of agreement, the fact that the two constructions share this particular property rules out any process of idiomatisation in this regard, if we take into account that the desemanticisation undergone in any process of grammaticalisation or idiomatisation is not expected in the definite construction as discussed elsewhere in this paper (Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 116).

The next step is thus to examine other parameters under consideration, namely premodification and the selection of the article. Figure 11 presents the results for the former.

Percentages and absolute frequency of a majority of with and without premodification in COHA

Figure 11. Percentages and absolute frequency of a majority of with and without premodification in COHA.

The results show no significant tendencies for the current discussion. In fact, the trends observed for both those instances in which majority is premodified (41) and those which do not allow for premodification at all (42) remain quite stable during the 19th and the 20th centuries (χ2(3)=2.05, p=0.5621), the preferred option being by far the absence of premodification.

(41) A vast majority of the prisoners were lovers of McClellan [COHA: 1890 MAG Century]
(42) A majority of Americans think that abortions should be legal in all or most cases [COHA: 2005 NF OurEndangeredValues]

Given the lack of variability over time, no further consideration will be given to this parameter. The different types and frequencies of the premodifiers of majority have already been examined but they have not provided data of relevance to the current discussion. Thus, the main conclusion to be drawn from this finding pertains to the evidence supporting the preference for non-premodified patterns, which already indicates certain syntactic fixation. Given that in the period surveyed there is no variability in premodification patterns, such fixation must have taken place before the 19th century.

The remaining indicator, article selection, does not provide revealing results in this regard either, as illustrated by Figure 12 .

Normalised frequency (per 10,000 words) of a majority of and the majority of in COHA

Figure 12. Normalised frequency (per 10,000 words) of a majority of and the majority of in COHA.

Although the normalised frequencies are not high, the data retrieved from COHA uncover some important issues which are worth pointing out here, especially in light of the preceding discussion and results. As Figure 12 illustrates, a majority of goes through a progressive decline since the early 19th century, a decreasing trend which also affects the majority of during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries but which is not as sharp as the former (i.e. the tendencies are significantly different; χ2(3)=184.87, p<.0001). Frequency is essential in the routinisation of any construction and, as such, these trends would not provide evidence in favour of any process of grammaticalisation. [9] In fact, considering the higher frequencies of the majority of, we can contend that they correlate with the previous results in that they constitute further support against the idiomatisation of its indefinite homologous. Given the preference of majority for the definite article and, in general, the clearly decreasing frequency of a majority of since the Late Modern period, we can argue that the evidence provided does not support the syntactic fixation of this structure.

The current diachronic study has corroborated the main tendencies found in contemporary English, with plural agreement being the predominant verbal pattern. Besides, quantificational meaning has also been observed in the qualitative analysis. However, it has been found that these two parameters applied not only to the structure under scrutiny, a majority of, but also to the majority of, an observation which goes against prior claims about the idiomatisation of binominal quantifiers and, consequently, our expectations. This finding, together with the lack of support from the rest of the indicators of syntactic fixation considered, does not allow us to contend that idiomatisation has taken place for a majority of. Yet, the apparent fixation in verbal and premodification patterns and the quantificational meaning that a majority of denotes and the patterns obtained for the majority of are relevant aspects worthy of attention and, therefore, deserve further consideration in future research.

4. Concluding remarks and further research

The research reported on here has presented the results of a diachronic quantitative and qualitative study carried out with a view to exploring the influence of lexical factors on the marked patterns of verbal agreement as observed in previous investigations on collective noun-based subjects taking of-PPs. The current study has aimed to explore the potential idiomatisation of three collective noun-based constructions – a number of, a group of and a majority of – for which some reference to grammatical meaning and/or function had been made yet without historical support.

The results of my study corroborate that the rate of plural agreement of the three constructions is high in Present-Day English and reveal that such a preference for the three cases can already be noted in the 19th century. Apart from the patterns of agreement, the study considered the restrictions in the patterns of premodification of the collective nouns and the selection of the indefinite article as further evidence for syntactic fixation. As for semantic opacity, the instances retrieved from the historical corpus were analysed so as to detect quantificational meaning.

Structure Semantic opacity Syntactic fixation
Quantificational meaning Plural agreement Restrictions premodification Indefinite article
A number of + + + +
A group of +? - + +
A majority of +? + +? -

Table 1. Summary of the semantic and syntactic parameters of idiomatisation observed in a number of, a group of and a majority of.

As summarised in Table 1, only one of the constructions, namely a number of, showed positive evidence for all the parameters examined. When number takes the indefinite article, it consistently selects plural verbal forms, being at the same time a construction which serves grammatical functions and denotes grammatical meaning.

As for the other two structures, further evidence is needed in order to claim that idiomatisation has occurred. Concerning a group of, we have observed signs of syntactic fixation in that premodification patterns show significant restrictions. However, in light of the increase in singular agreement since Late Modern English and the difficulties to determine if meaning is quantificational or lexical, the only conclusion to be drawn at this point is that a group of does not show positive evidence for being a case of idiomatisation since such an assertion does not find enough empirical support. A majority of, on the other hand, does show considerable syntactic fixation in verbal patterns and apparent semantic opacity. However, the data showed that the trends also applied to its definite counterpart the majority of. In this regard, and given the progressive decline in frequency of the construction, it was finally concluded that, despite the relevance of some of the tendencies observed, we cannot argue in favour of the idiomatisation of a majority of, as further support and reflection is needed to account for the similar collocational restrictions and meaning found for the majority of.

In brief, we can conclude that among the tendencies observed, a number of will be the most idiomatised construction, followed by the potential fixation and opacity of a group of. In the last place, in a preliminary continuum of idiomatisation, will be a majority of, given the lack of conclusive results and evidence. Although some significant tendencies have already been noted here, this investigation will benefit from further research aimed not only at expanding the case study proposed here but also at exploring further collective noun-based constructions so as to obtain a wider perspective on the topic that could help us explain their collocational particularities in Present-Day English.


[1] This study has been funded by the Spanish Ministries of Science and Innovation, Education, Culture and Sports, and the European Regional Development Fund (grants no. FFI2013-44065-P, FFI2014-51873-REDT and FPU13/01509), and the Autonomous Government of Galicia (Secretary General of Universities, grants no. GPC2014/060 and R2014/016). My warmest thanks to Javier Pérez-Guerra and Nuria Yáñez-Bouza for their valuable comments on the draft of this paper. [Go back up]

[2] This traditional conception of collective nouns has been problematised in recent works, where it has been observed how verb agreement also depends on regional (Bauer 1994, 2002; Algeo 2006; Hundt 2006, 2009), semantic (Levin 2001) or lexical (Bauer 2002; Algeo 2006) factors which, for reasons of space, will not be discussed here. [Go back up]

[3] ‘Binominal’ is taken here in a general sense referring to a complex NP (subject) that contains two nominal elements linked by the preposition of, as in Keizer (2007), Brems (2011, 2015) or Verveckken (2015). For other uses of the term and further types of similar complex NPs the reader is directed to Aarts (1998) and Dodge & Wright (2002), Wright & Kathol (2003), Davidse et al. (2008) or Brems (2011), respectively. [Go back up]

[4] Aware of the fact that in grammaticalised structures the preposition of is considered to form a unit with the preceding nominal element and its determiner, I will still use here the term of-PP to refer to the lexical material following the collective noun. Although it may not be the most plausible syntactic analysis, for the sake of simplicity and clarity I will use this structural point of view which, by the way, is supported by authors such as Langacker (2010: 41–43). [Go back up]

[5] Note that the main tenet of the Construction Grammar framework pertains to the conception of language as a network of constructions, that is, of conventional, symbolic and idiosyncratic “form-meaning pairings” which are “entrenched […] in the mind of the language user” (Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 1). [Go back up]

[6] Note that the general preference for singular agreement in Present-Day American English may have had an effect in the data presented in this study (see e.g. Bauer 1994, 2002 or Algeo 2006). [Go back up]

[7] In Fernández-Pena (2014, 2015a, 2015b) the non-overtly-marked plural noun people was also considered. Nonetheless, no significant results for this nominal element have been found in COHA. [Go back up]

[8] As an anonymous reviewer points out, frequency is another factor to consider. The normalised frequencies of a number of in COHA reveal a still increasing trend in the 19th century which stabilises in the 20th century, and statistical consolidation is a by-product of grammaticalisation. This assertion finds further support in a pilot survey in COCA which shows how a number of has decreased in frequency in the late 20th and, especially, the early 21st century. [Go back up]

[9] As an anonymous reviewer points out, it could also be argued that a majority of had already undergone fixation and idiomatisation by 1800, before the decrease in frequency. Nonetheless, this argumentation cannot be supported with the data and arguments presented in this subsection and as such it would need further consideration and research. [Go back up]


COHA = Corpus of Historical American English. 2010–. Compiled by Mark Davies. Available online at http://corpus.byu.edu/coha/


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