Friday, March 30, 2007

Today's English lesson

From the American Heritage Book of English Usage:

"One" Really IS
a Singular Sensation!

In formal usage, the pronoun one is sometimes used as a generic pronoun meaning “anyone”:
One would hope that train service could be improved.
The informal counterpart of one is you:
You never know what to expect from her.
Trouble arises when you use one in a series of sentences. You must choose a relative pronoun to refer back to one. You can of course use one and one’s repeatedly, as in
One tries to be careful about where one invests one’s money.
But in a sequence of sentences this may start to become tedious. A traditional alternative has been to use he, him, and his:
One tries to be careful about his investments.
This has the drawback of raising the specter of gender bias. Because of these problems, the temptation may arise to switch to you, but this will undoubtedly be distracting to your readers. It’s better to use the same generic pronoun throughout.

When constructions headed by one appear as the subject of a sentence or relative clause, there may be a question as to whether the verb should be singular or plural. The sentence
One of every ten rotors was found defective.
is perfectly grammatical, but sometimes people use plural verbs in such situations, as in
One of every ten rotors have defects.
In an earlier survey, 92 percent of the Usage Panel preferred the singular verb in such sentences.

Constructions such as one of those people who pose a different problem. Many people argue that who should be followed by a plural verb in these sentences, as in
He is one of those people who just don’t take “no” for an answer.
Their thinking is that the relative pronoun who refers to the plural noun people, not to one. They would extend the rule to constructions with inanimate nouns, as in
The sports car turned out to be one of the most successful products that were ever manufactured in this country.

But the use of the singular verb in these constructions is common, even among the best writers. In an earlier survey, 42 percent of the Usage Panel accepted the use of the singular verb in such constructions. It’s really a matter of which word you feel is most appropriate as the antecedent of the relative pronoun—one or the plural noun in the of phrase that follows it. Note also that when the phrase containing one is introduced by the definite article, the verb in the relative clause must be singular:
He is the only one of the students who has (not have) already taken Latin.

Constructions using one or more or one or two always take a plural verb:
One or more cars were parked in front of the house each day this week.
One or two students from our department have won prizes.
Note that when followed by a fraction, one ordinarily gets a plural verb:
One and a half years have passed since I last saw her.
The fraction rule has an exception in that amounts are sometimes treated as singular entities:
One and a half cups is enough sugar.
Note also that the plural rule does not apply to these one-plus-a-fraction constructions that are introduced by the indefinite article. These are always singular:
A year and a half has passed since I last saw her.

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