How to identify this overlooked subject-verb disagreement in writing

This post is an excerpt from Take an oeillade on this overlooked subject-verb disagreement, an entry from the Words of the Week series ran in the summer of 2020.

I came across an article from a Kenyan-based news publication whose author addressed one of the most curious and overlooked problems in English: the subject-verb agreement with sentences using the “one of the…” structure.

Philip Ochieng, the author, put the following part of a sentence on trial:

               “…book publishing is one of the industries that attracts the least number of new investments…”

Ochieng contends that the verb “to attract” should be in the plural form (attract) and not the singular form (attracts). He asks you and me, the readers, “what exactly ‘attracts?’ Is it the pronoun ‘one’ or the noun ‘industries.'”

To quote Mr Ochieng: “In the above statement, therefore, the plural noun ‘industries’, not to the singular pronoun ‘one’ — which merely exemplifies it — is your grammatical take-off point.”

I had to break this down myself. Sentence diagramming comes to the rescue.

Book publishing is not the noun that takes the verb “attracts” as it already has committed an action in the sentence: “is.” Book publishing is an industry; book publishing is tedious. We have already established the action that “book publishing” is doing.

A diagram of an English sentence that shows the correct subject-verb agreement when an antecedent is in play

“Book publishing” is the antecedent (a word that will be replaced by another word later in the sentence) for the pronoun “one.” “Book publishing is one” can stand on its own as a sentence, albeit awkwardly. Continuing on with the sentence, we learn that book publishing is one of many industries. Again, awkward as its own sentence.

We have established that book publishing belongs to a group of industries. After discovering this revelatory bit of information, we learn something specific about the collection of industries. These industries attract very few investors.

The antecedent of “that” is “industries”, not “one” or “book publishing.” In the sentence diagram above, you can see that “that” is the subject of the relative clause. With “that” acting as the representative for a plural noun, a plural verb form is required.

Let us talk it out:

  • Book publishing is an industry.
  • Book publishing is an industry that attracts the least number of investments.
  • Book publishing is one of the industries that attract the least number of investments.

Got it? Now, do not do it again, self.

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