"A number of..."(Foreigners' Faqs)
"A number of ..." usually requires a plural verb. In "A number of employees were present", it's the employees who were present, not the number. "A number of" is just a fuzzy quantifier. ("A number of..." may need a singular in the much rarer contexts where it does not function as a quantifier: "A number of this magnitude requires 5 bytes to store.") On the other hand, "the number of..." always takes the singular: "The number of employees who were present was small." Here, it's the number that was small, not the employees.
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