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The Wicked Of
What would prompt H.W. Fowler to pick on the word of?
Fowler (1858-1933), whom many regard as the dean of English-language scholars, ascribed to of “the evil glory of being accessary to more crimes
against grammar than any other.”
Do not be fooled by looks. Weighing in at a svelte two letters, this petite preposition couldn’t appear more guileless and benign. But of is the
culprit in many, perhaps most, subject-verb blunders.
Those who watch their English must constantly remind themselves not to mistake the noun in an of phrase for the actual subject. This is a key rule
for understanding subjects. Hasty writers, speakers, readers, and listeners might miss the error in the following sentence: A bouquet of roses lend color and fragrance to a room.
Make it A bouquet of roses lends color and fragrance to a room. In the sentence, roses is the object
of the preposition of. The true subject is bouquet (bouquet lends, not roses lend).
But once we learn that principle, here comes of to stir up yet more mischief. First, consider this sentence: He is the only one of those men who is always courteous. Where’s the mischief, you may well ask; who refers to one,
calling for the singular verb is. True enough—but wait, we’re not finished.
Now look at this almost identical sentence: He is one of those men who is always courteous. That is incorrect. The correct sentence is He is one of those men who are always courteous. This time the word who refers to men,
requiring the plural verb are.
Are you skeptical? If we slightly change the word order, which verb would you select: Of those men who is/are always courteous, he is one. Would anyone choose men who is?
If any armchair grammarians remain unconvinced, let them try to explain this sentence: Pope Francis is one of the popes who has led the Catholic Church for almost two thousand years. Obviously, it’s utter nonsense unless the verb is have led. It may madden us, it may sadden us, but popes—despite being the object of of—is the subject
of the verb have led.
Thus does of sabotage our best efforts. First, we train ourselves to ignore an of phrase in order to find the true subject. Then a he is one of those sentence comes along and we find that the object of the preposition of is the key to finding the correct verb.
Mr. Fowler, you do have a point.
Because of the e-newsletter's large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com's “Grammar Blog.”
In question 4 of last week’s pop quiz on parentheses, the second option in the answers section was printed incorrectly. The correct answer is: After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water. (He really needed it!) There should have been no period at the end of the second parenthesis.
We feel that in this business there are no small mistakes. Thanks to Karen T. and Randy B. for pointing out our typo.
These sentences contain prepositional of phrases. Correct the ones that are wrong.
1. Neither of the books have arrived yet.
2. Yasif is one of those people who likes Mozart.
3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always work hard.
4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable.
5. Each of the brothers said they were sorry.
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Changes Coming to Our GrammarBook.com Website
We want to alert all of our newsletter readers and visitors to our website that we will soon begin updating the English Rules section of GrammarBook.com to reflect the contents of the eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. These revisions will take place over the next couple of months.
We researched the leading reference books on American English grammar and punctuation including The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, Fowler's Modern English Usage, Bernstein's The Careful Writer, and many others. As before, we will provide rules, guidance, and examples based on areas of general agreement among these authorities. Where the authorities differ, we will emphasize guidance and provide options to follow based on your purpose in writing, with this general advice: be consistent.
A boiled egg is hard to beat.
When you've seen one shopping center you've seen a mall.
Police were called to a day care center where a three-year-old was resisting a rest.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. Neither of the books has arrived yet.
2. Yasif is one of those people who like Mozart.
3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always works hard.
4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable. CORRECT
5. Each of the brothers said he was sorry.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.