LawProse Lesson #125: “One of those who are” or “one of those who is”?

LawProse Lesson #125: “One of those who are” or “one of those who is”?

One of those ______s who (or that): singular or plural verb?       Our last LawProse lesson ended this way: “My recommendation: don’t be one of those people who insist on not using that in reference to humans.” I told my colleagues: just wait — someone’s going to insist that it should be “one of those people who insists.” “If so,” I said, “let’s make that the next lesson.” Many readers fell into the snare. So which is right? One of those who are or one of those who is? The former, I’m afraid. It’s not even a close question. This construction requires a plural verb because who, as the subject of the clause, takes its number from its antecedent, the plural noun people. Many writers erroneously think that one is the (singular) subject. But try rearranging the sentence (without changing a word), and you’ll see the proper relationship of the parts. She is one of those lawyers who work really hard. This becomes: Of those lawyers who work really hard, she is one. Consider what notable grammarians have said:
  • He is one of the best men that have ever lived . . . . In [this] sentence there are two words capable of serving as antecedent to that, viz. one . . . and men. A moment’s thought shows that men is the antecedent necessary to the sense: Of the best men that have ever lived (or of the best past and present men) he is one. But with one and men (or their equivalents) to attach the relative to, writers will hark back to one in spite of the nonsense it gives, and make their verbs singular . . . .” H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 402 (Ernest Gowers ed., 2d ed. 1965).
  • “These words [one of the, one of those] introduce the most widespread of all defiances of rudimentary grammar: the coupling of a plural subject with a singular verb. . . . The contributors to this miscellany are all educated men; some are literary artists; not one of them would ordinarily put a singular verb with a plural subject. Yet, seduced by a certain set pattern of words, they will automatically commit themselves to people who has good fortune, . . . writers who has made a living being funny, and so on.” Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide 240 (1966).
  • “The rule is that the formula, one of + plural noun or pronoun, requires the ensuing verb to be in the plural. . . . The use of the singular for the plural appears strangely nept when a subtle and notable writer employs it . . . . The rule becomes clear from an equation:
The cows The red cows The cows that are red in colour One of the cows that are red in colour It is one of the cows that are red in colour. Therefore the one requires a singular verb: One of the cows that are red in colour is for sale.” Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English 218 (1982 ed.).
  • “But the careless writer will set down: ‘He is one of those golf players who is always giving excuses for his bad shots.’ He writes in effect: golf players who is, which he is quite incapable of saying in cold blood.” Jacques Barzun, Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers 72 (rev. ed. 1994).
      Be careful, though. Tricky situations arise. The antecedent is one in the sentence She is the one among them who speaks fluent Spanish. The lesson here: Don’t be one of those people who mistakenly believe that the word believe earlier in this sentence should have been believes. Sources: Garner’s Modern American Usage 591-92 (3d ed. 2009). Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 634 (3d ed. 2011). The Chicago Manual of Style § 5.59, at 219-20 (16th ed. 2010).

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