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Even being a native speaker, I find it hard to know what's the correct way to announce in a sentence a thing that is a collection of other things, specifically in how to arrange adjectives and associated articles.

For instance, I found myself today saying:

La colección son los objetos que el contenedor mantiene.

As you see colección is a singular noun, but I'm saying that it's a collection of a plural amount of items. So, when applying adjectives, verbs or articles, was it ok to say son or should I say es?

However, if I switched to es the phrase would then be La colección es los objetos que el contenedor mantiene., which does not make sense (or sounds awful) in terms of es los objetos, does not seem to fit as well.

What's the correct approach on describing collections of objects?

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+1 Nice question. –  Alfredo Osorio Feb 29 '12 at 21:22
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4 Answers

According to the RAE in the entry for "ser" in the DICCIONARIO PANHISPÁNICO DE DUDAS, when the subject and predicate are nouns that differ in number, it is normal to match the verb ser with the plural element. There are a few cases when the singular is preferred, such as when the plural element actually refers to a singular concept. You can see some examples of both in this paragraph from the RAE.

    DPD entry for Ser, Section 2.1.1.c

c) Cuando el sujeto y el atributo son dos sustantivos que difieren en número, lo normal es establecer la concordancia con el elemento plural: «Mi infancia son recuerdos de un patio de Sevilla» (Machado Campos [Esp. 1907-17] 491); «Todo eso son falacias» (Ott Dientes [Ven. 1999]); «La primera causa de regresión de la especie son las alteraciones de su hábitat» (DNavarra [Esp.] 20.5.99). No obstante, en algunos casos es posible establecer la concordancia también en singular, en especial cuando uno de los dos sustantivos tiene significado colectivo, o cuando, siendo un plural morfológico, se refiere a un concepto unitario: «Quienes desarrollaron la cultura de La Venta era gente de habla maya» (Ruz Mayas [Méx. 1981]); «El sueldo es tres mil dólares al mes» (Donoso Elefantes [Chile 1995]); «Las migas ruleras es un postre que se reserva para la cena» (Vergara Comer [Esp. 1981]).

Therefore, the original sentence was correct because the verb ser would normally match with the plural element even if it is in the predicate of the sentence.

   La colección son los objetos que el contenedor mantiene.

I first learned this rule when a billboard in Spain saying "El metro no son solo los trenes," looked wrong to me. I researched a little, assuming that my Spanish was not as good as the Madrid Metro's advertising group. Since then, the rule has stuck (in theory at least) and I remember the metro sentence as a reminder.

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+1 for citing sources. If there's no extra answer or comment that disproves this in some way soon, this is likely to become the actual accepted answer. –  Alpha Mar 1 '12 at 17:52
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You have to be sure of who's the subject on the sentence, in this case your subject is La colección which as you mention is singular, so indeed saying La colección son would be incorrect.

I'd use one of these myself:

  • La colección es el grupo de objetos que el contenedor mantiene.
  • La colección es el conjunto de objetos que el contenedor mantiene.
  • La colección consta de los objetos que el contenedor mantiene.
  • La colección está compuesta por el conjunto de objetos que el contenedor mantiene.
  • La colección está conformada por el conjunto de objetos que el contenedor mantiene.
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I would say this:

La colección es el contenedor que mantiene a los objetos.

Another example of this would be:

El total es la suma de cada uno de los elementos.

You follow the same grammar rules even though the noun may be a noun that describes a collection of something.

However you should pay attention to the following:

El total de personas es cincuenta.

(x) El total de persona es cincuenta.

(x) El total de personas son cincuenta.

As you can see the noun is singular therefore the use of "El (noun) es..." but the noun "total" is referring to elements therefore the plural "personas".

More examples:

Un lote de carros.

(x) Un lote de carro.

Asociación de actores

(x) Asociación de actor

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+1 for lot's of useful examples =) –  Kage Mar 1 '12 at 2:38
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I would use this:

La colección comprende los objetos que el contenedor mantiene.

It preserves the original idea and it sounds more natural with the added word.

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+1 for suggesting this, I think the original sentence sounded unnatural, besides rephrasing is useful. –  Ghanima Mar 1 '12 at 0:34
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