Hi, this has been really bothering me, but here's my issue:
"There were a lot of people" vs "There was a lot of people"
"A lot of people say" vs "A lot of people says"
Many on the internet say that it should be "There were a lot of people" and "A lot of people say", because "people" is plural.
"of people" is in a prepositional phrase, so it's a modifier of the real object/subject, "a lot". So according to the rules of grammer, shouldn't it be the second choices ("There was a lot of people" and "A lot of people says")?
I'm bothered by this because it seems like an instance when good grammar doesn't sound right. Thanks.
"Lot”, as used here, is called a non-count quantificational noun. The of preposition phrase is not modifier of "lot", but complement of it.
Now for the interesting bit: the singular noun "lot" is 'number transparent', which means that the number of the of preposition phrase determines the number of the whole noun phrase for verb agreement purposes. Consider:
(1) A lot of people were present.
(2) A lot of work was done.
In (1) the noun in the of preposition phrase is the plural "people" and the plural verb "were" matches it. In (2), by contrast, the noun in the of preposition phrase is the singular "work", and the singular verb "was" matches it.
So it is clear that it is not the word "lot" that determines the verb form, but the number of the word that is complement to the preposition "of". And that is why "lot" is called ‘number transparent’ – it has no effect on the verb but looks through to the next noun, the one in the of preposition phrase.
Having determined in (1) and (2) what the verb form should be, now consider:
(3) There was / were a lot of people present. (your example)
(4) There was / were a lot of work done.
In this pair "there" is the subject, not "lot". We know from (1) and (2) that the number of the noun phrase is determined by plural "people" and singular "work". The same principle applies here, so that (3) must be plural "were" and (4) must be singular "was".
Have I explained that clearly enough?
Yes, thanks Paul! That's fascinating, never knew that there was a category for nouns like this. Helps a lot!
Yes, it's one of the more interesting aspects of English grammar.
There are a few 'number-transparent' nouns. These are the main ones:
"lot", "lots", "remainder", "number", "plenty", "bags", "rest", "couple",
"heaps", "loads", "oodles", "stacks".
Some of those, for example, "number" and "couple" select only plural heads.