Q: This grammar question was posed by a friend on Facebook: Which is correct? (1) “She is one of the few freshmen who understand” or (2) “She is one of the few freshmen who understands.” At first I thought #2 was the answer. Now I’m not sure.
A: We prefer the first example. We lean toward the traditional view, as we wrote back in 2007, that the verb in a relative clause (the part beginning with “who”) should agree with the preceding plural noun, “freshmen.”
But this is not a black-and-white issue, and we don’t think a singular verb should be considered wrong.
Many linguists and usage commentators now believe that that the verb can agree with either the plural (“freshmen” in this case) or the singular (“one”). In fact, the singular verb may be preferable at times.
What the question boils down to is whether the verb is more strongly attracted to the plural (“freshmen who understand”) or to the singular (“one … who understands”).
While logic and tradition call for the plural, respected writers have used both singular and plural constructions for centuries.
Let’s examine these two views a little more closely. First, the conventional explanation.
This sentence has two clauses: the main clause, whose subject is “she,” and a relative clause, whose subject is “who.” (A relative clause completes a sentence by modifying the preceding noun or pronoun in the main clause.)
In the first clause, “she” is the subject of the verb “is.” And this is the only verb for which “she” is the subject.
The verb in the relative clause is what concerns us. And the traditional view is that the verb in a relative clause agrees with the antecedent—the noun or pronoun immediately preceding the subject (“who”). Here the antecedent is “freshmen,” so the verb should be plural, “understand.”
Sometimes proponents of this view appeal to logic in explaining themselves. The subject of the main clause, “she,” is a member of a class—“freshmen who understand.” So the sentence could be recast as “Of the freshmen who understand, she is one.”
We can’t recast it as “Of the freshmen, she is one who understands,” because then we’re changing the nature of the class she belongs to. It would be all freshmen, not just freshmen who understand.
Many, perhaps most of the prominent grammarians and usage writers of the first half of the 20th century have adhered to the conventional view and recommended a plural verb.
They include Otto Jespersen (A Modern Grammar on Historical Principles, 1917), Henry Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1926), and George O. Curme (A Grammar of the English Language, 1931).
But both Jespersen and Curme acknowledged the lure of the singular. Jespersen says the verb is “attracted” to “one,” and Curme says that “one” is “erroneously felt as the antecedent.”
Curme explains further that “in loose colloquial speech, sometimes even in the literary language,” the verb in a relative clause “agrees incorrectly with some word closely connected with the antecedent instead of agreeing with the antecedent itself, since this word lies nearer the thought of the speaker or writer than the grammatical antecedent.”
In acknowledging the role of the “thought of the speaker or writer,” he puts his finger squarely on the problem. Sometimes another word (like “one”) is closer to the writer’s meaning than the grammatical antecedent.
Toward the middle of the 20th century, opinions started changing. Linguists and usage commentators began to suspect that the common practice of using a singular verb was not a mistake but a natural tendency and part of normal idiomatic English.
One of the first to doubt the conventional wisdom was the American linguist John S. Kenyon.
In “One of Those Who Is…,” an article published in the journal American Speech in October 1951, Kenyon argues that good writers have been using the singular construction since Old English.
He quotes a 10th-century example (modernizing the Old English): “Lazarus was one of those who was sitting with him.” The singular, he writes, “was evidently native English idiom, for the Latin original was different (‘one of those reclining with him’).”
“Similar examples are very common from the earliest Old English,” he continues, “sometimes with plural verb in the relative clause but very often with the verb in the singular.”
What seems to happen, Kenyon writes, is that “the writer or speaker is more immediately concerned with the one than with those, the whole group to which the one belongs. So he switches from the plural those to the single person or thing that he is most interested in.”
His article includes page after page of examples in which eminent writers, from Shakespeare onward, use singular verbs in “one of those who [or that]” constructions. Individual writers, in fact, sometimes choose the singular and sometimes the plural.
For example, he quotes Joseph Addison in the Spectator, 1711: “My worthy Friend Sir Roger is one of those who is not only at Peace within himself, but beloved and esteemed by all about him.” (Addison could have “those who are,” along with plural pronouns, but he didn’t.)
Then, later in 1711, here’s Addison again: “I am one of those People who by the general Opinion of the World are counted both Infamous and Unhappy.”
Different verbs, yet both sentences seem just right. And Addison, as Kenyon notes, was a “famous exemplar of excellent prose style.”
Kenyon acknowledges that “the plural verb agrees with logic and conventional grammar.” But if “our ideas of grammar” cannot accommodate a usage that’s “an established feature of English,” he writes, then our ideas need to change.
“The facts are clear and abundant,” he concludes, “and if there’s no ‘rule’ of grammar to allow for them, such rules should be made.”
The more thoughtful writers on grammar and usage have adopted Kenyon’s view. Good writers use both singular and plural verbs in these constructions, and both represent good usage.
Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957), say that “the clause verb should, logically, be plural, as in one of the best books that have appeared.” But in fact, they write, “a singular is often used here, as in one of the best books that has appeared.” And the singular verb “does not offend anyone except grammarians.”
This thinking has been reinforced over the last 60 years, and today it’s fairly well established.
“The use of the singular verb in these constructions is common, even among the best writers,” says The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. “Perhaps the only workable solution to this problem lies in which word sounds most appropriate as the antecedent of the relative pronoun—one or the plural noun in the of phrase that follows it.”
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage takes the same position: “In this case, the mental process involves the pull of notional agreement.” (We’ve written before about notional agreement—that is, agreement based on meaning rather than on conventional grammar.)
As M-W says, “it is simply a matter of which is to be master—one or those.”
Sometimes the verb is made to agree with “one,” the usage guide says, presenting its own phalanx of examples.
For instance, it quotes Randolph Churchill (1945): “Waugh is not one of those who finds the modern world attractive.”
But, M-W continues, “do not think that one is always the master,” and goes on to cite authors who have matched the verb to “those.”
One is Mark Twain (1888): “Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly was one of those people who are infatuated with patent medicines.”
A good indicator of how opinion has evolved is Fowler’s Modern English Usage. As we said, the original 1926 edition, written by Henry Fowler himself, adhered to the traditional view and advocated a plural verb. So did the second edition of 1965, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers.
However, the third edition, revised and edited by R. W. Burchfield and first published in 1996, recommends the plural verb in “one of those who” constructions, but allows for the the singular:
“A plural verb in the subordinate clause is recommended unless particular attention is being drawn to the uniqueness, individuality, etc., of the one in the opening clause.”
Is there a general preference among English speakers? Merriam-Webster’s addresses this question:
“An article in The English Journal in October 1951 reported a citation count (from 1531-1951) showing five plural verbs to one singular. The actual preponderance in favor of the plural verb may not be so great—certainly it is not in our files. But it is plain that those is often the master.”
The usage guide concludes that the “choice of a singular or plural verb … is a matter of notional agreement. Is one or those to be the master?”
The M-W editors note, as did Kenyon, that Joseph Addison “was not troubled by using both constructions. You need not be more diffident than Addison.”
So in summary, you can’t go wrong with the plural. But go with a singular verb if the “one” is uppermost in your mind, and not the class to which the “one” belongs.
On another subject, constructions with “one of the” can also create verb agreement puzzles, as we wrote back in 2007.
And another common problem crops up when we use “one of the” and “if not the” in the same sentence.
Say you go to a fantastic pizzeria and conclude, “That was one of the best, if not the best pizza I’ve ever had.” Then you wonder if the noun should have been plural, “pizzas.”
The trick here is to put “if not the” toward the end of the sentence, after the noun: “That was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, if not the best.”
Here’s how Pat explains it in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.):
“ONE OF THE . . . IF NOT THE. Here’s another corner you can avoid backing yourself into: Jordan was one of the best, if not the best, player on the team. Oops! Can you hear what’s wrong? The sentence should read correctly even if the second half of the comparison (if not the best) is removed, but without it you’ve got: Jordan was one of the best player on the team. One of the best player? Better to put the second half of the comparison at the end of the sentence: Jordan was one of the best players on the team, if not the best.”
Finally (since we brought it up), “if not” in this case means “perhaps” or “maybe even.” That’s generally the case when used with superlatives like “best,” “fastest,” “oldest,” and so on.
But as we wrote in 2013, “if not” can also mean “but not,” as in “His language is colorful, if not grammatically correct.”