Recently, one of my students got tripped up on a question from an SAT practice test. He saw:
"There ARE a number of steps you can take to determine whether game design
is the right field for you..."
and thought it should be:
"There IS a number of steps..."
After all, "a number" is clearly singular. Shouldn't it take a singular verb?
Not in this case! My student had unwittingly stumbled onto an example of that two-headed beast - the collective noun.
Collective nouns (group, faculty, team, staff) can function either as singulars OR plurals, depending on what's being emphasized:
The team has survived the playoffs, but the World Series will be the real test.
<em>Here, "the team" functions as a single unit, so we use a singular verb.</em>
</em>The team members have agreed to treatment after a drug-fueled Las Vegas blowout.
<em>Here, "the team members" are acting individually, so we use a plural verb.</em>
</em>In my student's example above, "steps" are clearly individual elements of a career journey, so we consider them separately and use the plural "are."
American vs. British English
If you read authors from both sides of the Atlantic, you may have noticed that Americans and Brits treat collective nouns somewhat differently. American writers are more likely to use singular verbs for collective nouns; British writers favor plural verbs more often.
American: <em>The staff has agreed to a pay cut. </em>
</em> British: <em>The staff have agreed to a pay cut.</em>
Well done Matt - very good explanation.
I would just add the following:
There ARE a number of steps... the verb agrees with the subject "steps".
The noun 'number' is not the subject, it is a determiner, similar to 'some, several, etc.'
Now, if the sentence was written as "The number of steps..." then 'number' is the singular subject and the verb would also be 'singular', thus "The number of steps is..." and 'of steps' modifies the noun/subject 'number'
Just my 2 (USD) cents worth (2.3 cents CAD) :)
One thing I'd add: most grammar books will say that "steps" isn't the subject, since it's the object of a preposition. This is why my student was confused - he could tell that "steps" really mattered, but he wasn't sure why. The answer, I think, is that "number" is the subject, but it's a collective noun that can be singular or plural (depending on what's happening in the rest of the sentence).