I would like to know more about the words majority / minority. I've been searching for subject-verb agreement rules—when we use these words followed and not followed by a noun—but I couldn't find any rule about them. Can you help me? What is the correct subject-verb agreement in these examples:
A sizable majority __________ (feel) that the right to free speech is more important than the right to be free from offensive speech.
A sizable majority of teachers ___________ (feel) that the right....
Of those who use an on-line service, the vast majority _______ (go) on-line everyday.
Thank you very much.
Regina Krasovski firstname.lastname@example.org
You have asked a very good question, which has sent me to about ten reference books and dictionaries. Here's what appears to be the case.
The American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin, 1996) says that when majority “refers to a group of persons or things…, it may take a singular or plural verb, depending on whether the group is considered as a whole, or as a set of people considered individually.” So we say: “The majority elects (not elect) the candidate” because the election is accomplished by the group as a whole. But we say, “The majority of voters live (not lives) in the city,” because living in the city is something that each voter does individually.
Celce-Murcia and Larson-Freeman (The Grammar Book, Heinle & Heinle, 1999) cite Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage), reporting that the nouns majority and minority are variously described as singular, plural, or collective, depending on which reference grammar one consults:
Fowler describes three related but slightly different meanings:
An abstract or generic meaning, referring to superiority of numbers, with a singular verb, as in “The great majority is helpless.”
A specific meaning where one of two or more sets has a numerical plurality, with a singular or plural verb, as in, “The majority was/were determined to press its/their victory.”
A specific meaning where "most" is referred to (where the word most can be substituted), with a plural verb, as in “The majority of my friends advise it.”
Celce-Murcia and Larson-Freeman cite another study in which there was no clear preference for the singular or plural verb. These sentences were used:
“A majority of votes _______ needed to win.”: 81% of the people questioned chose is, and 19% chose are.
“The majority of Democrats _______ opposed to local blackouts….”: 80% chose are; 20% chose is.
Huddleston and Pullum in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002) state that majority and minority are similar to other collective nouns such as bunch, group, and number that occur with "of"; in expressions like these, the verb depends on the concept of singular or plural of the count noun following:
A bunch of flowers was presented to the teacher. (One bouquet; flowers gathered together into one unit)
A bunch of hooligans were seen leaving the premises. (Several hooligans; individual bad young guys)
The majority of her friends are Irish.
So, when your concept is clearly singular, like "a bunch of flowers" in (a), use a singular verb, like this:
The majority of senators is voting with the president.
There is still a minority of women in the profession.
When your concept is clearly plural, like "a bunch of hooligans" in
The majority of voters don't want war.
If the minority of parents who are really upset by the school board's decision raise enough objections, they could very well cause a change in the school's policy.
You will probably be right with whichever verb you choose.