The Grammarphobia Blog

One of these days

Q: In yesterday’s blog entry, “Several interpretations,” there is an error in the last sentence. It should read: “This is one of those words that HAS to be interpreted.”

A: The sentence you mention (“This is one of those words that have to be interpreted”) is correct. But we can understand your confusion. A lot of people are confused by sentences with “one of the,” “one of these,” and “one of those” constructions. In some cases, the verbs that follow are singular; in other cases, they’re plural. Here’s how Pat explains the difference in her grammar book Woe Is I:

(1) If “that” or “who” comes before the verb, it’s plural: “He’s one of the authors who SAY it best.”

(2) If not, it’s singular: “One of the authors SAYS it best.”

In the first example, “one” is not the subject of the verb “say.” The subject is “who,” which is plural because it refers to “authors.” In the second example, the subject is “one.”

If you’re still uncertain, turn the sentences around in your mind and you’ll end up with the correct verbs: “Of the authors who SAY it best, he is one.” … “Of the authors, one SAYS it best.”

We hope that helps.

[Update, Sept. 28, 2016: We have substantially revised our opinion on the proper verb to use in constructions like “one of those who” and “one of the few that.” Usage commentators now acknowledge that while a plural verb is technically correct, there are times when a singular verb may be preferable. See our latest post on the subject.]

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