Word Choice – Number Versus the Number

John’s question: “Last week you gave two examples that appeared contradictory: ‘A small number of branch offices are closing’ and ‘The number of proposals we must write is increasing.’ I thought the word ‘number’ takes a singular verb. Why did you use ‘are’ in the first example?”

BizWritingTip response: Good observation. When you use “the” in front of the word “number,” it implies a singular meaning and, therefore, a singular verb.

Examples (correct)
The number of proposals we must write is increasing.
The number of people who wish to attend is growing.

If you use the article “a” in front of “number,” it implies a plural meaning and requires a plural verb.

Examples (correct)
A small number of branch offices are closing.
A number of people wish to attend.

Isn’t English fun?