A couple of days ago, I took Roy Peter Clark to task for claiming that phrases like "a million dollars" show that the indefinite article a can be used with a plural head ("Slippery glamour", 7/4/2008). I observed that the structure is clearly [[a million] dollars], not [a [million dollars]]; that expressions like "a million" are just numbers, fitting into the normal syntactic slot where numbers go; and that million in this case is morphosyntactically singular.
In the comments, Russell Lee-Goldman pointed out that
There are, however, a few cases where it really looks like "a" is acting funky:
– He was there for a good seven years.
– An additional three people are required.
– A mere four nations recognize that standard.
– She collected an amazing and heretofore unprecedented forty million dollars.
Things like this are indeed quite common — here are a few from the web:
That was the year he twice smashed the world record, the second time dropping it to a stunning 19.32 seconds.
Her distance held up throughout that day although the sole American woman jumper came within a surprising seventeen meters of her.
The Pats scored a record setting 589 points this season (they beat out the Vikings who had 556 back in 1998).
The court record reflects an extraordinary seven days of hearings and argument related to Martin’s efforts to avoid being forced to testify under oath.
Kate Beckinsale suffered from a severe case of anorexia when she was younger, dropping down to a shocking 70 pounds (32 kilograms).
BlogRodent offers up 701 posts with a mind-boggling 281187 words for you to happily consume.
I had the lyrics written down – before I really knew what they meant – and I had the riff kicking around for a good ten years …
Those that survive will head out for a final four hours in the desert under conditions simulating a real mission in the "Power Wear Off."
I'm no syntactician, and I don't have access to CGEL or other wide-coverage grammatical descriptions of English this morning. But these examples seem to me to represent a generalization of the phenomenon on display in phrases like "a million dollars": English number-expressions have inherited from their partitive history a limited ability to act like singular noun phrases.
However, I'll admit that the constituent structure doesn't feel like
[ [a <modifier> <number>] <noun>]
but rather feels like
[ [a <modifier>] [<number> <noun>] ]
— for what little those feelings are worth.
And with that, I'll turn it over to readers for (I hope informed) comments.
[Update — note work by Tania Ionin & Ora Matushansky, "A singular plural", and Torodd Kinn, "Demotion of numeral nouns from heads to dependents" (abstracts from a 2004 Workshop on Numerals in the World's Languages).]