Aggregate Subjects

Today I ran across another sentence where I did not know whether to use a singular or plural verb.

Confounding Sentence:

A total of 37 wells [is / are] required to reach this level of production.

The word “total” is singular, but the expression “37 wells” would require a plural verb. Flummoxed again, I had to go look it up.

Enter Professor Jan Johnson Yopp, instructor of the grammar session at the 2005 Institute for Midcareer Copy Editors, hosted by the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The good professor says to use a singular verb with quantity, bunch, pack, and group.


A large quantity of tools was stolen from the Bandersnatch #5 rig.

A bunch of employees is gathered around the coffee pot waiting for it to finish brewing.

A pack of cigarettes costs more than a gallon of gasoline in every state.

A group of AADE members is writing The Drilling Encyclopedia.

Other aggregate words such as number, majority, and total are singular if preceded by “the,” but plural if preceded by “a.”


A number of people believe that oil prices will go up. (plural, preceded by a)

The number of people who believe that oil prices will rise has grown. (singular, the)

A majority of Virginia residents support offshore drilling. (plural, preceded by a)

The majority of Virginia residents is supportive of offshore drilling. (singular, the)

A total of 15 reservoir engineers were transferred overseas. (plural, preceded by a)

The total of 15 reservoir engineers was far less than the number needed. (singular, the)

So let’s return to our Confounding Sentence and see which verb we should use. Because the word “total” is preceded by “a,” it should be plural, therefore:

A total of 37 wells are required to reach this level of production.

Prepositional phrases after the subject generally do not affect the verb tense, according to Professor Yopp, except in the case of “percent,” as we saw yesterday.


The contracts committee of six engineers and three lawyers meets every Tuesday.

One in four summer interns has been offered a full-time job after graduation.

These singular subjects take a singular verb even though a prepositional phrase containing a plural comes between them.


4 Responses to “Aggregate Subjects”

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    and clear your mind prior to writing. I have had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out.
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    • petrocomputing Says:

      From my Oct 14, 2012 post titled “Clearing the Mind”:
      Why on earth would you want to clear your mind? No wonder you have an empty page – you are trying to have an empty head. The goal of writing is to get what is in your head onto a piece of paper, or perhaps a modern screen.

      The best way to start doing that quickly is to, well, start doing that quickly. Just write down something, anything. It doesn’t have to be the beginning; you can start in the middle. It doesn’t have to be an executive summary or introduction; you can start with the first step of the procedure you followed. Just write down one thing you know you want to say, any fact at all, in any order. If you think of another topic or fact while you are writing, then put a bold subhead with that topic at the bottom of the page and go back to what you were writing. You can add more details about that other topic later.

      There is an excellent book about how to overcome writer’s block that is recommended often at writers’ club meetings and conferences. It’s called Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, who has been working with writing groups for 30 years. It is full of prompts to get you started and tips for how to turn off the inner critic so you can keep on going. You can find it on amid rave reviews.

      But don’t wait for that to arrive in the mailbox; just start typing, even if you have to start every piece with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Put something on the page, get those fingers typing and the thoughts will start flowing. You can cut and paste and rearrange and edit later, just do the “brain dump” as fast as you can. But whatever you do, don’t clear your brain!

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