A listener named Mwalimu on Facebook asked,
Which is correct? “This is one of the novels that has made a mark in my life,” or “This is one of the novels that have made a mark in my life”?
Someone asks me a question like this every six months or so, and I always have to look up the answer because, for the life of me, I can never remember whether a sentence like this calls for a singular verb or a plural verb. I actually have a little bookmark in one of my usage guides on the page about this topic because I keep forgetting. Here’s why: these are unusual sentences, usage experts have disagreed about the answer for years, and it’s an active area of language change.
When You Ignore the Prepositional Phrase
You find yourself wondering whether your verb choice should be driven by the word “one” in “one of the novels” or should be driven by the word “novels.” There are some other rules that say when you’re considering subject-verb agreement, you should ignore prepositional phrases such as “of the novels,” but the problem is that those rules apply to simple sentence such as “The age of the novels is surprising.” In that case, you can imagine lifting out the prepositional phrase and ending up with “The age is surprising.”
When You Don’t Ignore the Prepositional Phrase
But the sentence we’re considering today is more complicated: “This is one of the novels that have made a mark in my life.”
In this sentence, the verb you’re considering is inside a relative clause—“that have made a mark in my life.” It’s called relative clauses because it begins with one of the relative pronouns: “that.” “that have made a mark in my life.” And in a sentence like this, you don’t ignore the prepositional phrase because as Garner’s Modern English usage puts it, “that” is the subject of the relative clause, and it takes its number from the plural noun to which it refers. In this case, that word is “novels,” so you use a plural verb: “one of the novels that have made a mark.”
That’s the technical answer. On the other hand, Garner also concedes that most people these days would use a singular verb. He puts it at stage 4 on his language change index, which means the singular verb is “virtually universal but opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.” Further, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage goes through the long history of experts who argued for a singular verb and those who argued for a plural verb, and their entry concludes by noting that Joseph Addison, a famous writer from the early 1700s, freely used both singular and plural verbs as he thought best fit his sentences, and they think you should feel free to do so too.
So if you want to be proper—if you want me to give you a rule—the rule is use a plural verb and write that “This is one of the novels that have made a mark in my life,” but also don’t get too worked up about it because multiple experts say you shouldn’t be bothered either way, which is probably why I can never remember how to deal with these tricky sentences and have to keep looking it up. My bookmark isn’t going away any time soon.
So that’s your somewhat unsatisfying Quick and Dirty Tip: When you look at a sentence that talks about “one of the plural nouns that” does something, use a plural verb. But also, don’t worry about it too much. Nobody else is sure either.
“one of the [+pl. n.] who (or that).” Garner’s Modern English Usage, fourth edition. Oxford University Press. New York. 2016. p. 652-3.
“one of those who.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam-Webster, Inc. Springfield. 1994. p. 689-90.