Grammar question - "one of the only people who understand(s)"

Which is grammatically correct?

[li]Stephen Colebourne is perhaps one of the only people on Earth who really understands dates and times.[/li]
[li]Stephen Colebourne is perhaps one of the only people on Earth who really understand dates and times.[/li][/ol]

I’m a native English speaker, and to my ear (1) sounds more correct. I guess because he’s “one (of the people) who understands”, and “one” is singular.

But I guess he is also “one of {the people who understand}” and people is plural. So that favors (2).

And does the addition of “only” make a difference? “One (of the only people)” makes less sense to me than “of {the only people who understand}”, since “who understand” specifies what I mean by “the only people”.

Pedants will tell you that one must always ignore what is in the prepositional phrase. They are wrong. “One” can take a singular or plural verb depending upon the meaning one wants the sentence to convey.

In your example, you are singling out Stephen Colebourne. The singular therefore emphasizes this.

The plural would be better if the sentence was intended to be about the larger group Stephen Colebourne is a part of.

For me, the difference is “only” versus “all.”

I know exapno just argued against it but yes, the standard line is that prepositional phrases are ignored for the purposes of verb conjugation. The lengths to which you hold to that is your prerogative.

For me, “Stephen Colebourne is perhaps one of the only people on Earth who really understand dates and times,” sounds and feels unabashedly wrong. I would use the plural and I would correct any document that crosses my desk with a similar sentence to the plural should it be within my authority.

Thanks. Just to double check, did you mean instead to say “I would use the singular”? I.e., you’re objecting to the use of the plural form “understand” with the singular “one”?

At the risk of threadjacking: the whole “one of the only…” construct itself, strikes me as wrong and weird. I’ve never used it: have always had the impression that “only” derives from the idea of “one-ly” – how can one have a plural number, of “only” anything? That said: plenty of thoroughly literate people use “one of the only…” – so, likely, I’m wrong in being peeved by it. My initial dislike of the expression, has stopped me short of troubling myself over whether the verb should be singular or plural :wink: .

Oh heck. I never know what I mean anymore.

Yes. I do not like the third person plural understand with the third person singular one.

“Understands”. Plural. More than one “understand”.

“One of the only” is a nonsense phrase, I think what is intended is to say “one of the few”. To me, “one of” and “only” are mutually exclusive. “One of” indicates membership in a group, while “only” indicates uniqueness. I don’t think you’re wrong to be peeved, I think it’s a common malapropism that even educated people might repeat without paying attention. But maybe we’re both wrong here.

Glad that I’m not the only fusspot about this issue. As you say, though, maybe we’re both wrong. Often, language is not logical – though there are those misguided folks who claim that, invariably, it is.

I don’t really see what’s wrong with “one of the only people”. “One of the few” seems like a decent alternative, but “only” seems to me to emphasize the exclusivity of the group a bit more.

Atamasama and Sangahyando would you also object to a sentence like “The only women I’ve ever loved are my wife and my mother”?

Now you’re just messing with me.:slight_smile:

You beat me to it, my friend, and I agree with your assessment. The phrase sounded a bit off, which caused me to give it further consideration.

That is different. If you started out saying “two of the only” it would be wrong.

When you say “one of” or “two of”, you are establishing that your subject(s) are not exclusive. You are making it clear that there are others. But by saying “only” as well, you’re saying they are exclusive. That’s what makes it nonsensical to me.

It’s the same as saying, “This is my big small dog.” That phrase seems like nonsense or at best a tongu-in-cheek joke. It could be accurately used to describe an incredibly obese dachshund, since it is the big version of a small dog. But it’s at best awkward, at worst confusing, and in either case contradictory.

Another way to think of it… “Only” implies “…and nobody else”. The definition of the word means “and nothing else” from the dictionary definition. If you’re making it clear there are other, you’re misusing the word.

Back to the original question: One of the people who understand.

Yes–why can’t the verb collocate with people? I.e.:

They are the people who understand. He is one of them.

For what it’s worth, I see that “one of the only” returns 942 million google results (including some defending the phrase), whereas “one of the few” returns only (;)) 95 million.

Not that that settles anything, except maybe from a descriptivist standpoint. Then again, Google also returns far more results for “another thing coming” than “another think coming” and I will fight that to my dying breath. :slight_smile:

As far as I can tell that rule doesn’t even make sense much less is it right or wrong. If the verb is part of the prepositional phrase, then its head is the noun inside that phrase, and it should be conjugated accordingly. Meanwhile if it’s not, then its head is some other noun and it should be conjugated accordingly.

The rule can’t be consistently applied even if we try to interpret it consistently. For example:

Of people who understand cakes, John is the foremost.


John stands over the only people who understand cakes.

You certainly wouldn’t “ignore” the prepositional phrase for conjugation here.

At issue in the original example is the very question whether the word “understand” is inside or outside the prepositional phrase. And AFACT the factual answer is, the sentence is ambiguous. Meanwhile the meaning isn’t really changed no matter which grammatical reading you give–so choose either way.

(Having said that, for whatever reason the plural conjugation ‘sounds better’ to me.)

How about “these are the only cookies left”? Also nonsense?

Two of the three. The three are the only ones. Hence, two of the only.

There’s no problem here.