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What is the antecedent of the relative pronoun who in the following sentence?

Hector Berlioz is one of those French composers who is famous for his operatic music.

Is it one or is it composers? I vote for one which is in the nominative case; composers is in the objective case as the object of the preposition of. Does the nominative case take precedence over the objective case in this instance?

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2 Answers

The writer has got muddled. There is more than one French composer famous for operatic music, so the sentence should read ‘. . . one of those French composers who are famous for their operatic music.’ When it’s written that way, the antecedent of who is clearly those French composers.

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If you reconsider and take the entire noun phrase "one of those French composers", you will be correct. Make the noun phrase singular:

HB is a French composer who is famous for his operatic music.
HB is one French composer who is famous for his operatic music.
HB is one of those French composers who is famous for his operatic music.

That Barrie England's answer and mine are at odds merely illustrates that usage mavens disagree about how to parse this kind of sentence. I won't argue with Barrie's answer. He can, I'm sure, cite references to support his claim. I can too, and here they are (You must click on the link to see the entire entry):

One of those [plural noun] that is/are

"One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so," goes the old Christmas song, but the fact that the singular one needs a singular verb can lead to confusion. In a recently published collection of language columns by William Safire, No Uncertain Terms, he wrote the following sentence (page 336):

"Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" is one of those phrases that sounds as if it comes out of Kipling. The sentence caused considerable stir (as such things go), for the verb "sounds" should really relate to the plural "phrases," not the singular "one." The sentence should probably read (underlining things for our purpose):

"Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" is one of those phrases that sound as if they came out of Kipling. The rare device for figuring out which verb to use in this construction is as follows: turn the sentence inside out:

There is a possible exception, however. In Burchfield's New Fowlers*, we find this example:

"Don't you think," said Bernard, "that Hawaii is one of those places that was always better in the past." (from David Lodge, 1991; my underline) Burchfield adds, "A plural verb in the subordinate clause is recommended unless particular attention is being drawn to the uniqueness, individuality, etc., of the one in the opening clause." In an earlier note, Burchfield writes: "Exceptions [to the rule that we use the plural verb] occur when the writer or speaker presumably regards one as governing the verb in the subordinate clause," and he gives another two or three examples, including "I am one of those people who wants others to do what I think they should."

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HB is one of those French composers who is famous for his operatic music tells us that HB is famous for his operatic music, and that he is also one of those French composers. It doesn’t tell us that those French composers are themselves famous their operatic music. –  Barrie England Feb 14 '13 at 9:25
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@Barrie: It's not supposed to, because the writer assumes, as Burchfield points out, that one governs the verb in the subordinate clause. This is a point of contention for English mavens, and because there's no end to that argument, it's a point that I don't want to argue. I don't claim to have a definitive answer, nor do I accept that there is an answer which fits every case. Sometimes the singular sounds better and sometimes the plural is as far as I'm willing to go. Far better writers than I seem to share that opinion. –  user21497 Feb 14 '13 at 9:43
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