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Problems in the Plural – The New York Times

Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style. (Some frequently asked questions are here.)

There’s a certain grammatical error. It irks me. In fact, it’s one of many things that have that quality in common. They are all things that irk me.

So, this particular grammatical error is one of those things. What things? The things that irk me. Of the things that irk me, it is one.

That’s right.

It’s one of the things that irk me. It is NOT “one of the things that irks me.” That would be a grammatical error, wouldn’t it? An irksome one.

If you are diagramming at home, here’s the explanation: “… that irk me” is a relative clause. The verb in the clause has to agree with the subject, the relative pronoun “that.” “That” can be singular or plural, depending on its antecedent. In this sentence, the relative clause describes “the things,” and the antecedent of “that” is the plural noun “things.” So, the verb in the relative clause must be plural.

(It would be correct to say: It’s one thing that irks me. In that case, the relative clause is describing only one thing, so “that” is singular and the singular verb is correct. But in the sentence It’s one of the things that irk me, the relative clause is describing the whole group of things and its antecedent is the plural “things.”)

After Deadline has discussed this issue before, but the lapses keep occurring. Some recent irksome errors:

•••

The drive ends in Madison, one of the few places near Atlanta that wasn’t burned during the Civil War. The town is small, but has about 100 restored antebellum homes.

Madison is one of a small group of places near Atlanta that have something in common, which we explain in the relative clause — they are places that weren’t burned during the Civil War.

•••

Mr. Hughes said he is determined to address one of the issues that has always dogged The New Republic: retention.

There are some issues that have always dogged The…

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