One of the in relative clauses: singular or plural verb?

 

Q:

My students and I have been working out subject-verb agreement in relative clauses.

We have discussed the following sentences:

S1:

One of the students who are American was late.

S2:

Only one of the students who is American was late.



In S1, the adjective clause refers to "students" verb is plural. In S2, the adjective clause refers to "one" verb is singular.

Is it possible to write:

S3:

One of the students who is American was late.



I want to show that only one student is American and that this student was late.


SACesar
[email protected]
Posted 19 February 2003
A:

We need to ask two questions about these examples. First,
what is the function of the adjective clause in each example? Second, how do English speakers use the construction(s) we´re looking at? The second question is as important as the first one.

In S1 "who are American" is a restrictive adjective clause that refers to a subset of students, a part of a larger set of students. It can be paraphrased as

Of the students who are American, one was late.

For this reason, S1 is correct as written.

S2 and S3 (the adverb only makes no difference to the grammar) are not correct as written. In logical terms, they cannot be paraphrased as

Of the students who is American, [only] one was late.

Can we show that only one student is American and that
this student was late by using an adjective clause? No.
Even if the adjective clause is punctuated as nonrestrictive, with commas:

[Only] one of the students, who is American, was late.

the sentence may imply that the student is the only American in the group, but it does not state that idea. The only way to show that only one student is American and that this student was late is this:

The only one of the students who is American was late.

This version, of course, gives a different meaning and function to the pronoun one.

Now for the important question: Is this a natural use of such a construction? In the past tense and past perfect, verb forms in which the number of the subject is not marked on the verb, this construction occurs in all positions: subject, direct object, object of preposition, and subject complement. However, in illustrating the choice of number on (present tense) verbs, both Quirk et al. (A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Longman, 1985) and Biber et al. (Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Longman, 1999) use as examples only sentences in which this construction is the subject complement (the noun phrase that follows the verb be or other similar verb).

Now we have a real choice or do we? Quirk et al. state (Section 10.43, note [d]): "The choice of singular or plural [verb] can depend on whether attention is directed to the generality or to the uniqueness." (Grammar Exchange italics)

Let´s take some examples from the COBUILD corpus* of subject complement use:

Focus on the generality:

He is not one of those officers who follow orders blindly and unthinkingly. [The focus is on the set of officers.]

Focus on the uniqueness:

If you are one of the thousands who has already renewed your subscription… [The focus is on the addressee, the individual member of the larger set.]

Biber et al. state that the use of a singular verb "should probably be ascribed to the pull of the numeral one toward the singular… combined with the fact that the main clause makes reference to a single person" (Section 3.9.3).

So, returning to the examples at the beginning, it would be possible to have a sentence such as:

She is one of the students who is American (in every respect).

thus emphasizing her uniqueness.

Marilyn Martin

_______
*The Cobuild Collocation Sampler can be found at the
COBUILD website.