Which is the head in “a number of boys”?

[A number of boys] were absent.
(The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p56)

This book says that number is the head of the subject NP, but Angela Downing calls it a “determinative” (that is, a “complex quantifier”, English Grammar p.433). When I read the sentence, Downing’s term seems more natural. Then what’s the possible reason Cambridge Grammar sees number as the head of the NP?


In this context I think it’s impossible to say that number is the head of the Subject noun phrase a number of boys.

I don’t have CGEL, but in Huddleston’s precis (A Short Overview of English Syntax) he

  • distinguishes a determinative (a class of word or phrase) from a
    Determiner (a syntactic function) (3), and
  • defines the Head of a noun phrase as a noun (7.1.b)

It would be consistent with these to say that number is the Head of the noun phrase a number of which acts as the Determiner of the Subject noun phrase a number of boys, thus:

[SUBJECT NOUN PHRASE [DETERMINER NOUN PHRASE Determiner a Head number ?? of] HEAD boys]

REVISED September 2015:
But it may be just a slip, or an improper revision of a passage which was originally something beginning “The number of boys”, or any number of things.

I now have CGEL and find that it treats constructions of this sort at section 3.3 (pp. 349-50) under the heading Non-count quantificational nouns. In these expressions, where the “quantificational noun” (number in your example) is complemented by a preposition phrase of + “what we shall call the oblique” (boys in your example)

… the number of the whole NP depends on the oblique; we will say that [number] is number-transparent in that it allows the number of the oblique to percolate up to determine the number of the whole NP. […] [I]t has been bleached of its original meaning and is a non-count noun […] The of complement can be omitted in ellipsis, but it remains understood and continues to determine the number of the NP […]

On pp. 351-2, under the heading “Syntactic structure of NPs like a number of protesters“, CGEL contrasts the analysis I have given above with one which understands the quantificational noun as head of the NP:

[NP [Det a] [Head:Nom [Head:N number] [Comp:PP [Head:Prep of] [Comp:NP boys]]]]

CGEL gives fairly compelling syntactic reasons for preferring this analysis to mine.

  • of forms a constituent with the oblique, not with (a) number

    a number __ prefer the old system
    a number of whom complain

  • number takes prehead dependents

    any number of boys
    a large number of boys

I think there is something more to be said, but frankly I don’t know what that something is. For the time being I think we have to take number as a head to which the construction imputes plurality.

Source : Link , Question Author : Listenever , Answer Author : StoneyB on hiatus

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