The Language Perfectionist: This Is One of the Columns That…

Decades ago, now-defunct McCall’s magazine ran a marketing campaign that featured portraits of sexy dames, including Carly Simon and Tina Turner, along with the tongue-in-cheek caption “One of the boring housewives who reads McCall’s.”

Over a period of months, the trade journal Advertising Age published numerous letters from readers, ferociously debating whether the correct word should have been reads or read.

Here’s the answer, courtesy of The Accidents of Style, Charles Harrington Elster’s useful new guide to grammar and usage:

“When one of is followed by a plural noun and who or that, the verb that follows must agree in number with the plural noun: This is one of those blunders that are [not is] easy to make.”

Thus, the magazine, or its advertising agency, was wrong. The caption in the ubiquitous ads and posters should have been “One of the boring housewives who read McCall’s.”

As a quick way of determining whether the singular or plural is correct, Elster suggests inverting the sentence. Using this test, his example above becomes “Of those blunders that are easy to make, this is one.” No one would ever say “blunders that is,” so the right phrasing is obviously “This is one of those blunders that are easy to make.”

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

 

  • Tom

    I certainly agree that the subject and verb need to agree, but the inversion seems strained. ‘One’ – however ambiguous – is the subject of the verb ‘is’; the adjunct “of the blunders” is subordinate to the subject. Similarly, the actual subject of the McCalls sentence is “One..”. Thus I can understand why they would use “…reads McCalls”. “One” could argue it is more correct.

    The more subtle (to me) alternate view is as you imply, that the subject “one” and the adjunct “of the blunders” are a composite subject; then the ‘subject’ becomes plural and the verb would become plural also. “One of the boring housewives who read McCall’s” would become the correct construction.

    It seems by the liberal use of Elster quotes that you’re agreeing with him on this, but what is your opinion? Language is a lving thing; by the time some construction is accepted as “correct” language has often moved on!

  • When writing any type of advertising the usage of the word should be in keeping with the way people actually converse. This will help ensure that the message of the ad is not diluted by awkward or unfamiliar phrasing. Therefore, the ad should have read exactly as it did. “One of the boring housewives who reads McCall’s.” Even though it is technically wrong.

  • Ron

    I agree with Tom. The subject obviously is one. The verb must agree with the subject and should be “reads.” I hasten to say that I did not consult my mother who was an English and Latin teacher!