“One of Those Who”: A Singular Dilemma

A single red paper clip surrounded by white paper clips

Like many copyeditors, I sometimes find myself enforcing rules I don’t fully agree with. For one thing, I wouldn’t want anyone who might know the applicable rule to think I’ve made a mistake.

But the more important reason is that I want my work to leave no trace. By adhering to a consistent set of rules—rather than doing things my own way—I’m helping to reduce the chances that readers will be distracted by my editorial choices.

Still, maybe some of the rules that bother me deserve a little scrutiny. Maybe one or two of them need to be rethought. Or maybe breaking them would be the better choice in certain contexts.

One of those rules that deserves a closer look is the one I just broke in this sentence.

The antecedent of “who”

CMOS 5.62 says that a relative pronoun (usually “who” or “that”) following a construction like “one of the few” or “one of those” refers back to the plural noun, not to “one.” Accordingly, the antecedent of “who” in the following sentence would be “people,” which requires the plural verb “are”:

She is one of those people who are famous for being famous.

I understand the logic, which becomes clear when the sentence is inverted:

Of those people who are famous for being famous, she is one.

In this version, “who is” would be obviously wrong. So the plural wins, end of discussion.

Or is it?

A focus on the singular

Most readers wouldn’t take the time to mentally unpack and rephrase such a sentence; instead, they’d read it for its sense, which to me is basically this: “She is someone who is famous for being famous.” The focus is on the unnamed subject, not on the subcategory of famous people to which she belongs.

So—and without a grammar book to refer to—I’d tend to write (and say) this:

She is one of those people who is famous for being famous.

The noun “people” is indeed plural, but the noun phrase “one of those people” is singular. If such a person were to talk to you, you could say that one of those people is—but never are—talking to you.

Besides, there’s more than one way to invert the sentence:

One of those people who is famous for being famous is she.

Unlike the inversion in the previous section, this one doesn’t seem to require “who are”—though that could work here also. But why can’t the phrase “one of those people” rather than the word “people” alone be the antecedent of the relative pronoun “who”? I think it can be, particularly if the emphasis is on the singular subject.

A focus on the plural

Sometimes, however, the focus is more clearly on the object of the preposition; in that case, the plural verb is the obvious choice. This seems more likely to happen when the noun is either a number or a pronoun like few, many, or several that suggests a number—or any of these used as an adjective:

The candidate is one of several who are vying for the same district.

The candidate is one of several teachers who are vying for the same district.

The candidate is one of ten who are vying for the same district.

The focus in each case is on the multiple candidates who are all vying for the same district rather than on the one candidate vying alone. The sense is obviously plural, so there’s no need to break any rules.

The verdict

In any document that needs to be carefully edited and formally correct, you’re better off following the “one of” rule that says to match the verb to the plural object of the preposition. But if the sense of the sentence is strongly singular, and you’re not obligated to prove your grammatical bona fides (as on a copyediting test), you might make a principled exception.

Photo of paper clips by Liz West, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.


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2 thoughts on ““One of Those Who”: A Singular Dilemma

  1. I would simply eliminate the “who is” altogether: She is one of those people famous for being famous. Is that not acceptable?

    • Omitting the relative pronoun can be a good move. According to CMOS 5.226, the result is known as a contact clause, “a type of elliptical clause—one often involving what is known as a whiz-deletion (so called because it so often amounts to the omission of who is).” That wouldn’t quite work if what follows is an adjective alone: “one of those people [who is] famous.” But it can work well when what follows the noun is either a prepositional phrase or (as in your example) includes one. I especially like the option when the first word is a participle—like “vying” in that last set of examples in the post: “The candidate is one of ten vying for the same district.” A definite improvement, and no more singular/plural dilemma!

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