One of those small points of grammar that is/are driving me crazy | Bleader

One of those small points of grammar that is/are driving me crazy

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Jacques Barzun--He thought so too
  • Eric Robert Morse
  • Jacques Barzun: He thought so too
No matter how many times you read it in the Tribune and other fine publications, it's wrong.

It's wrong because it's ungrammatical, and what is lost in grammar isn't gained in brevity or clarity.

I read the following theater capsule in the Tribune of July 12:

The new e.t.c. revue is one of those shows that seems to happen every few years on Wells Street, when the intimacy of the venue comes together with a hot young cast and the e.t.c. stage leaps past the main stage...

The new revue is one of what? One of "those shows that seems to happen . . ."

Plural subject, singular verb.

"One of those shows that seem to happen," which is grammatically correct, is just as easy to say, just as clear, and doesn't make the writer sound pedantic. But almost nobody gets it right anymore.

You question that? I ran a Tribune search of the phrase "is one of those that . . ." and a search of the phrase "is one of those who . . ." Some of the stories retrieved didn't risk being either right or wrong because they avoided the third person present. For example, "The kind of problem you describe is one of those that I dread." And, "Tim Burks . . . is one of those who got shut out."

But most ran that risk. And of the 20 stories I looked at—ten on the first page returned in each search—the Tribune got it wrong 12 times and right three. I found abominations like "SportsChannel in New York is one of those that airs them."

As I say, it's not just the Tribune. I ran the same searches at the New York Times site. The Times did much better, but not good enough. My search brought me to a 2006 column by William Safire, then the Times's house grammarian, in which Safire allowed the great Jacques Barzun to skewer him for sweating the small stuff while allowing syntactic matters of consequence to go unadjudicated. Barzun wrote:

"I do have a question based on following your prose in all its virtuoso gyrations. Have you no particular view in the matter of 'He is one of those who is . . . (are)'? You seem to run on both sides of the fence. Can you perhaps take it up in one of your pages not devoted to D.C. slang? I am an are partisan. Reasons on request."

Safire consulted his scrapbook and admitted to a "jarring incongruity" between what he'd preached and what he practiced.

Is this what happened at the Tribune? Does the stylebook say one thing while its staff writes another? Did the Tribune make a policy decision that the those who is construction has become grammatically acceptable? Or is this a battle it lacks the will to fight?

I e-mailed Valentina Djeljosevic, the paper's "deputy editor of editing and presentation," and asked what's going on.

"There hasn't been a rule change," Djeljosevic replied, "but this seems to be a blind spot for our writers and editors. Even veteran copy editors miss it. So the simple explanation is human failing."

I sent her a discussion I'd found online of the grammatical principles involved here. We should all feel flattered: apparently "educated readers" are most likely to misunderstand them. Djeljosevic said she'd share the piece with her staff.

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