“….the presenter was one of those American journalists who is only known as “a famous American journalist” in Moscow” — Spectator, March 26 2022.

Yikes! How on earth could the (perfectly literate) writer of this sentence not cry out in pain at this construction?  “…one of those … who is …?”

I find myself grating my teeth more and more frequently as this construction appears repeatedly in modern English, both written and spoken. I can understand how it comes about in everyday speech, when the antecedent group noun which is the real subject of the sentence can easily be forgotten and the individual example replaces it, leading the speaker to use a singular verb. Even then, there’s a clash that should surely strike most people as ugly and illogical. Yet the usage is ubiquitous. 

“[Science] is truly one of those things that makes life worth living” — Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow. And how about this? “The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was one of the special guests that was on hand to launch a new Winter Garden …” — Website report, Battersea Park, 2011. This demonstrates an odd determination to be grammatically wrong and ugly at the same time. It would have been so easy to write “… who were on hand …”, and surely that would be a more natural form in any case?

As far as I can see many writers who specialise in matters grammatical opt quite consciously for the “ungrammatical” version: “This is one of the criticisms that has often been made of recent educational policy” — David Crystal, The Fight for English, 2006. Crystal has been a leading language guru for several decades. He makes a point of flouting the rules, in the interest of a freely developing vernacular. Is it with the same intention that another of our self-appointed guardians of language, John Humphrys, writes: “He’d be brilliant as one of those characters who assumes the guise of someone he despises…” — Beyond Words, 2006.

This curious deafness to what one is writing or saying is not new. The modern pundits have the authority of no less a master of the language than Sir Walter Scott: ““What friend!” replied the hermit; “that, now, is one of the questions that is more easily asked than answered.”” — Ivanhoe (1819), chap. XX. The construction has been common in written English since at least Scott’s time. It could be used correctly: here is Nathaniel Hawthorne on the Pincian gardens in Rome in the early nineteenth century: “one of the things that reconcile the stranger to the rule of an irresponsible dynasty of holy fathers…”. A modern writer would no doubt put “one of the things that reconciles the stranger …”.

I’m prompted to draw attention to this obvious mistake because it seems now to have become an accepted form, although it goes so grindingly against grammatical logic that we surely shouldn’t accept it without protest.

It comes as a relief when we encounter the construction used correctly. “Lord Strathclyde … is one of the few Conservatives who seem to know how to oppose.” — Alexander Chancellor, Daily Telegraph, 22 September 2003. Bravo! Most people nowadays would have written, flouting both logic and elegance, “… who seems to know…”.

Some modern writers can be relied on to write intelligently as well as elegantly. “One of the things which most acutely exasperate lovers of justice in this world is the difficulty of fixing responsibility.” — P G Wodehouse, On Photographs and Photography.  I would back Wodehouse against Scott, simply because his construction sounds right. 

Another highly literate and punctilious writer, Clive James, always makes sure that the internal logic of the construction is preserved: “[Jean-Francois] Revel calls [Proust’s novel] A la Recherche one of the rare books that even in their weaknesses offer an example of “totally adult thought”.” — Cultural Amnesia, 2007 p. 581. The logical correctness of this is particularly noteworthy in view of the potentially misleading plural, “weaknesses”, that it contains. 

And there is at least one modern authority on the subject who we can turn to with relief because he is quite definite about it, and states the case clearly: “Where one is describing one of a group that has a common characteristic, any verb must refer to the group and not to the individual item. So one would write “he was one of those men who refuse to be beaten” rather than “he was one of those men who refuses to be beaten” as the relative clause describes the group and not the individual. The same would apply to “it was another of those things that make you mad” rather than “makes you mad”.” — Simon Heffer, Strictly English (2010) pp. 47-8.

That should sort them all out. But I’m afraid it does rather make me mad. And I hold out little hope of the world in general taking the slightest notice.