I wonder whether the "Answer Key" is correct or not.

1. What percentage of the people in the world (is, are) illiterate?

---> Answer Key is "is". I think "are" is correct. Am I wrong?
Original Post
This question about "percentage is" or "percentage are" was discussed at length on this Newsgroup previously. Follow the entire thread to interesting comments, including two from Betty Azar herself.

From: Susan Saint susan-don@shaw.ca

Date: 26 March 2002 06:35
PERCENTAGE is supposed to follow the same rules as SOME, when it comes to subject-verb agreement, right? Then how about this sentence:

The percentage of people in the world IS increasing.

Should it not be ARE increasing because the verb agrees with the noun in the prepositional phrase?

From: mysesame jhfcc@mail.jhptt.zj.cn

Date: 26 March 2002 08:57

Your sample sentence actually means "the number of people", which is usually singular, as opposed to "a percentage of" and "a number of", which are plural when followed by a plural noun head.

I checked my written-English corpus (WEC) of more than 800 novels etc and found 10 sentences with "the percentage of" functioning as subject. All of them are treated as singular: they all refer to "the number":

E.g.The percentage of pauperism to population has been greater in London than in all England.

Hope this helps.

Chuncan Feng

From: BettyAzar bazar@whidbey.com

Date: 26 March 2002 06:35

What a wonderful answer from China! We're delighted to have you and everyone answer questions on our grammar forum. I agree with what you said about "percentage."

It can be used in an expression of quantity, in which case the verb agrees with the noun head:

A certain percentage of STUDENTS DO not attend graduation ceremonies.

It can be used as a noun:

The PERCENTAGE of students who don't attend graduation ceremonies IS small.

The same is true of "number" -- it can be part of an expression of quantity (a quantifier, like "a lot of" or "some") or a noun used as the subject of a sentence.

e.g., A number of students are here. The number of students who are here is twelve.

Thanks for posting your answer from China! We look forward to hearing from you again.

Betty Azar


Date: 27 March 2002 06:13

This passage is from a teacher:

In my night school class yesterday, students asked me about a sentence appearing in Chapter 6 of UUEG - Subject-verb agreement - and I wasn't sure what to answer them.

I don't have my book at home, but the sentence read something like:

A percentage of people in the world IS, ARE ...

The answer book showed that IS is correct. A previous sentence showed that PERCENTAGE can be used with a plural noun, so I was wondering what the exact rule for PERCENTAGE would be. Is it the same as SOME? If so, would the answer not be ARE? That sounds weird to me, but if we follow the other examples in which the book uses PERCENTAGE, that would logically be the answer.

Isn't grammar great? I always tell (and show) my students how rewarding and fun grammar can be.

This is my response:

I think I found the items you're referring to -- on page 90 of UUEG, items 19 and 20:

What percentage of the people in the world ARE illiterate?
[ANSWER (Thirty) percent of the people in the world ARE illiterate.]

What percentage of the earth's surface IS covered by water.
[ANSWER Seventy percent of the earth's surface IS covered by water.]

"Percent of" accompanied by a number can function as a quantifier, like "two-thirds", "half", etc. So one would say, "half of the people in the world ARE . . ." or "fifty percent of the people in the world ARE . . ." By putting it in a question form and using "percentage" instead of "percent", I think the text made it too tricky; "what" substitutes for a figure here. I didn't consider all the possible difficulties when I created these items. My intention was simply to show that "percent" (which is something students seem to use fairly often in their writing) functions as a quantifier when it is followed by of + a noun. Of course, it can also stand alone as a subject, in which case it is singular:
Thirty percent IS a large number. OR
The percent(age) of people who own their own airplanes IS very low.

I think any confusion you and your students might have over this is the text's fault, not yours! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. In future revisions, I'll add a footnote, modify the entries, explain the items better in the Teacher's Guide, or just delete the items altogether.

Yes, I agree. Grammar is really fun!

Betty Azar


From: mysesame jhfcc@mail.jhptt.zj.cn

Date: 28 March 2002 09:53

The Subject-Verb Agreement Rule for "percentage expression+of+NP":

a. if NP is singular or uncountable, the verb is singular;

b. if NP is plural, the verb is plural.

The same rule also applies to:

1. all of, some of, half of, NP
2. fractions like: one-third of, two-thirds of, NP
3. many/much equivalents like: a lot of, plenty of

NOTE that the percentage expression may take the form of either a number like "2 percent" or "a (adjective) percentage of":

S1 Over 60 percent of the city was destroyed in the war. (Singular NP)

S2 32 percent of the doctors were women. (Plural NP)

S3 An impressive percentage of the audience were students. (Collective Plural NP)

With numerical percentages, a slightly rare case is that if NP is a number, the verb is singular:

S4 2 percent of 50 is 1. (mathematical calculation)

Sometimes, percentage expressions and fractions may stand alone as a subject, without the of-phrase.If the of-phrase is understood, one has to follow the above mentioned rule:

S5 In Hawaii, more than a third of the residents are of Japanese descent, a third are Caucasians, about 15 percent are of Polynesian background, and the others are mainly of Filipino, Korean, and Chinese descent.

S6 Because of its [Iceland's -- Chuncan Feng] climate, three-quarters of its area is uninhabitable, and even the remaining quarter is thinly settled.

Betty Azar's sample sentence, "Thirty percent IS a large number", does not involve an of-phrase at all and refers to the idea of a particular number. Therefore it is singular.

I mentioned in my first email that "the percentage of NP" refers to the idea of a particular number, thereby differing from "a percentage of NP", which refers to the idea of some/many. A similar difference is also found between:

1. the number of NP & a number of NP
2. the total of NP & a total of NP

The expressions with "the" refer to the idea of a number; the expressions with "a" mean something like many.

Chuncan Feng

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