Usage and Grammar

Q. In a recent William Safire column, “On Language,” in the New York Times, Safire devoted the column to addressing the mistakes he might have made during 2002, and his readers’ corrections. This is part of one of them:

In that regard, the law of proximity: “Henry [Kissinger] is one of the few who has the trust of the keepers of the secrets.” Ken Paul e-mails: “The antecedent of who is ‘the few,’ and thus the verb should be have.

But in my style book it says this:

One in x. Formalists recommend a singular verb, arguing that “one” is the subject. For example: One in two marriages ends in divorce.

Was William Safire right to accept the admonition of the person who corrected him?

A. Yes, William Safire (in his article “Culpa for Mea,” New York Times, January 5, 2003) was right: he (or his copyeditor) was wrong—though the rule (not quite the one you cite) is a relatively squishy one, and most people don’t notice when it’s been broken. Safire clearly chose situations that would allow not only for self-deprecation but for entertaining quips. He ends the example you cite with the following: “The Yip Harburg rule of agreement: if you’re not near the antecedent you love, you use the antecedent you’re near.” (E. M. Harburg wrote, “If I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.” Readers born after World War II might prefer the variation by Stephen Stills.) Safire’s point, both in citing Harburg and in choosing the example, is that it’s not always easy—or desirable—to fight the trap of attraction (not to Kissinger, but to a word that gets in the way of the true subject of the sentence).

The rule you want is not “one in x”; rather, you should consult the rule regarding, as Fowler’s has it, “one of those who,” under “agreement” in the third edition of that book (see p. 36, right below the discussion on “attraction”). Most editors agree with Fowler’s: “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” (p. 550). And I just happen to be one of those editors who hate to put themselves in opposition to both Safire and Fowler’s.