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One of Those Grammatical Errors

Prajwal Parajuly

Copy Editing

 


 

Many years ago, in a college newspaper office in Midwestern America, three pairs of punctilious eyes stared at me with unmistakable hostility. “It’s a non-issue,” said a copy editor fond of robotically weeding out dangling modifiers. “The sentence clearly says ‘one of the’, so the verb should be singular. You can’t make this blatant a grammatical error when writing about grammar.”

It was a column obnoxiously titled “Americans’ Command Over English Falls Dismally Short”. In it, I ranted about—what else but—the general disregard for grammar in America. I bandied around terms like “appositive”, “clause”, and “antecedent”—words as much a part of contemporary American vocabulary as “whence”, “wither”, and “thou”. I condemned my readers’ English teachers and lamented the slow and sure death of the English language, “because what happens in America travels all over…The world has taken grammar for granted for too long.” All this I did while maintaining that it was not about pedantry but about grammar’s imminent demise.

The copy desk, comprising intelligent people who took consistency in capitalization even more seriously than they did their college grades, received with glee this lampooning of their compatriots. They exchanged knowing, indulgent looks while ruthlessly wielding their red pens, scribbling “yeah” in happy solidarity where I alluded to a nauseous/nauseating misuse and drawing enthusiastic smiley faces at the mention of my worries about “kids of today” being able to construct “decent sentences”.

All the chumminess, however, fizzled when a part of a sentence in the column read, “I am one of those people who have good grammar.” Every one of those comma-splice-eradicating editors authoritatively squirmed. “That can’t be right,” hissed an editor who prided himself in always having known that “liquefy” is spelled with an “e” and not an “i”. “It’s common sense,” spat another.

It took half a dozen grammar books—and a volley of expletives—to finally convince the entire copy desk that what I wrote was grammatically correct. “So, it’s correct to say, ‘I am one of those people who have good grammar’,” an editor, a self-declared hyphen queen, begrudgingly admitted. “But when we introduce ‘the only’ into the sentence, we should say ‘I am the only one of those people who has good grammar’? Stupid rule.”

The “stupid” rule requires that the antecedent agree with the verb. But every time I write a “one of the” sentence with the verb agreeing with the antecedent, it inadvertently ends up being marked as an error in an academic paper or edited out in a magazine article. And the college students’ adamancy can be easily overlooked when one takes into account that even esteemed papers like The New York Times frequently make antecedent-verb disagreements. Sentences such as “The Atlantic’s Matthew Yglesias, a supporter of Senator Barack Obama, is one of those anxious Democrats who wants this primary to wrap up, already” and “Ms. Kelch is one of those people who always makes small talk”, in which the verbs do not agree with the antecedents, are common. Despite the then-NYT copy chief acknowledging the common mistake in an e-mail reply and assuring me that she hoped to “hoist the flag” in the future before the paper found itself “on the petard again”, the error continues to appear.

What is it about this error that causes wars at editing tables? This isn’t even one of those grammatical errors that crop up because of an over-reliance on Microsoft Word. Most certainly, this disagreement issue is an error that few people are aware they’re committing because it’s so easy to be confused, so convenient to miss. Edmund Weiner, the writer of The Oxford Guide to English Usage and co-editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, puts it brilliantly:

I think that the reason why it’s common but little known is that it’s part of the phenomenon sometimes called “attraction”, whereby a verb is attracted to the number of a preceding noun which is not in fact its immediate subject. The fact that they are juxtaposed makes the apparent agreement sound all right, whereas if the verb correctly agreed with its real subject and thus did not have the same number as the preceding noun it would appear to show a grammatical mistake.

Often, when instructing on the issue, I cockily ask people to be cautious at the point “one of the” comes up in their writing. This once resulted in a confounded advanced-level ESL (English as a Second Language) student turning in an essay infested with “one of the people have” and “one of them have” constructions. Clearly, if I can get away with spelling “surprised” as “suprised”—embarrassingly in that section of my column where I earnestly talk about spellings—he should be forgiven the innocent mistake.

Prajwal Parajuly is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.

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