The Grammarphobia Blog

Patently singular

Q: In the following sentence, which verb – “is” or “are” – is correct? “Only one in ten business-method patents is/are granted to a financial institution.” (FYI, a business-method patent is a patent for a new method of doing business.)

A: A subject like “one in ten” or “one out of three” or “one in every six” always takes a singular verb: “One in ten is” … “One out of three comes” … “One in every six says” … and so on. The subject here is “one.”

This is true even if you insert a clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb) between the “one in ten” part and the main verb.

Here’s the kind of sentence I’m talking about: “Only one in ten business-method patents that are issued is granted to a financial institution.”

When you insert a clause beginning with “that” or “who” in such a sentence, the main verb (the one following the clause) stays singular, but the verb inside the clause is plural.

Here are some more examples. I’ll put the inserted clauses in brackets:

“One in ten plumbers [who claim to be licensed] is an impostor.”

“One out of the three [that are most popular] comes from Japan.”

“One in every six women [who vote Republican] says she’s an independent.”

The verbs are sometimes easier to figure out if you rearrange the sentence:

“Of every ten plumbers who claim to be licensed, one is an impostor.”

“Of the three that are most popular, one comes from Japan.”

“Of every six women who vote Republican, one says she’s an independent.”

(And, by the way, please ignore those fake statistics. I made them up for purposes of illustration.)

“One” may be a simple number, but it raises lots of grammatical questions. People often ask, for instance, whether they should say “one less” or “one fewer.” Here’s a Grammarphobia Blog posting on that one.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or