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I have just learned from what I consider a reliable source, that the following sentence is correct:

One of us is wrong, aren't we?

I would never in my life have written this, but I am assured that this is exactly how it would be written

As I realize comments don't live forever I will quote the relevant parts:

oerkelens : So you would really write One of us is wrong, aren't we? I guess by analogy you would not bat an eyelid at One of these balls is blue, aren't they?
Matt Эллен : yes, "Then one of us is wrong, aren't we?" is exactly how it would be written. Same for the balls.

Could someone please enlighten me how it is possible that the number in a question tag supposedly has to be in discordance with the subject of the main clause?

I admit that I am not the youngest any more, and my school days are long gone, but back in the days, I was taught that 1. a verb and its subject concord in number 2. a question tag concords with the subject of the main clause

I was given examples like:

It is warm today, isn't it?
We will be on time, won't we?
Mary is pretty, isn't she?
John isn't the brightest, is he?

Some people may notice that the subject of the main clause seems to determine every time the subject of the question tag. When the main clause subject is singular, so are verb and subject in the question tag.

I was under the impression that a) this made sense and b) this would be a general rule. I fully realize that grammar does not have to make sense, so a) is immaterial. As for b), today I learned I was wrong :)

So when (and possibly why?) do we form question tags that are different in number from their main clause?

To exemplify, also the other example sentence that I used and was corrected on:

One of these balls is blue, isn't it? (so this is wrong)
One of these balls is blue, aren't they? (and this is correct)

As an afterthought, does this strange grammatical number mix-up only appear in question-tags, or should I always refer to singular subjects in the plural if certain conditions are met? And what are those conditions?

Which versions are correct?

One of the cars is broken, aren't they? They (the car(s?) that is(are?) broken) should be fixed.
One of the cars is broken, aren't they? It (the car that is broken) should be fixed.
One of us must be wrong, mustn't we? We (the one(s?) that is (are?) wrong) should make amends.
One of us must be wrong, mustn't we? He (the one that is wrong) should make amends.

(In the last one, they could of course be used as the singular they, but that would avoid the issue...)

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One of these balls is blue, aren't they? If that's correct then One of my legs is being pulled, aren't they? I should add to this that One of us is wrong, aren't we? is pretty much normal speech but it has a tendency to be used instead of You are wrong. –  Frank Jun 18 at 11:03
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No sources (at least not right now), but I am in complete agreement with you. “One of us is wrong, aren’t we?” is completely and utterly ungrammatical to me, and “One of the balls is blue, aren’t they?” even more so. While singular they can sometimes muddle things and change a question tag from singular to plural agreement, to me this is only possible if the verb form does not change. “Well, whoever said that must be an idiot, mustn’t they?” is fine to me, but “Well, whoever said that is an idiot, aren’t they?” is impossible. The surface form of the verb in the question tag must --> –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 18 at 11:45
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--> match (or at least possibly match) that in the main clause to me; otherwise, the question tag jars quite horribly. When the subject in the main clause is ‘one of us’, problems arise. If we assume that ‘us’ is two people, one of each gender, there is no way in my grammar to make a question tag at all in speech; it would just have to be avoided altogether. In writing, “One of us is wrong, isn’t (s)he?” would work. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 18 at 11:47
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If we trace back through the linked question with comment thread, to the sources linked therein, we find nothing of sufficiently imposing authority to match against the early learning and Sprachgefühl of the various native speakers who find this supposed rule utterly bizarre (and count me among their number). –  Brian Donovan Jun 18 at 11:50
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I have never heard, "One of us is wrong, aren't we?" and it sounds ungrammatical to me as a BrE speaker. I have heard and would say, "One of us is wrong, no?" or simply "Then one of us is wrong." As for the balls, "One of these balls is blue, isn't it?" is the correct form, because the 'it' matches the specified 'one of these balls' in plurality. It makes no logical sense to specify one of a group of things, and then continue grammatically as if you are referring to the group, as in the 'correction'. –  Sam Jun 18 at 12:22

14 Answers 14

up vote 26 down vote accepted

I've bundled up my comments into an answer of sorts. (ha, it looks worse than the comments - who chose these colours and fonts?)

In British English (or rather in Britain) I've certainly heard aren't we etc used in that way. Whether it is right/proper/by the rules/grammatical/whatever I have no idea .

One of us is wrong, aren't we?

It's got a question mark, but it's not used as a question, it's used as a statement and that particular statement means You are wrong but I'll leave it to you to tell me that it is you who is wrong.

That format is commonly used in a condescending manner or when talking to children.

One of us was breaking the speed limit, weren't we Sir?

meaning You were breaking the speed limit.


One of us is heading for a smack, aren't we?

meaning You will soon get your bottom smacked if you don't stop what you are doing


And in the case of the original question

One of us is going to have to start talking, aren't we?

meaning I'm going to start talking but I've said this in an introductory fashion so as not to appear too forward


But then, there's the balls...

One of these balls is blue, isn't it?

Is pretty standard I'd say, it might be rhetorical or it might be a proper question that needs an answer to someone learning colours.

It could even be a test for someone who has difficulties with words and/or the balls are actually red and green.


This version however

One of these balls is blue, aren't they?

I don't think I've ever heard a question posed like that (in BrE).


Lengthy further discussion on comments summarized here just in case a raft of comments get deleted, but we all know that never happens, don't we?

Can we use One of us is wrong, isn't he? without any sarcastic or patronizing undertone? Just as in Well, we can't both be right, so surely one of us is wrong, isn't he?

Is there sarcasm in well, at least one of us dodged that bullet, didn't he? Am I correct is started to wonder about a specific idiomatic use of aren't we that has nothing to do any more with the actual normal formation of question tags

If you said One of us is wrong, isn't he? who would be the he in that sentence? If there are only two of you, then calling the other person he instead of you is wrong, it should be one of us is wrong, aren't you? which is quite blunt. If there were three of you, you could ask the third party One of us is wrong, is it him? not quite so blunt but not quite as clear as the simple Is he wrong?

The aren't we on it's own isn't enough to add the sarcasm. In combination with the statement the aren't we means and I (the speaker) know who that is going to be. So it's sarcastic when used with one of us is wrong but not sarcastic when used with one of us is going to have to speak first.

One of us is wrong used with aren't we has almost always got a sarcastic undertone. Without sarcasm it would just be We're wrong or One of us is wrong or One of us is wrong but I don't know which. In that particular phrase I would always assume the aren't we is sarcastic. It's a very fine line though and the intonation of the speaker is very important.

Can this irregularity also appear with or the singular subjects that get a plural question tag? And does this ever happen anywhere else than in question tags? Is "One of us is wrong. He should apologize." also wrong?

That's slightly different. You could just about say that to a third party (imagine two children A & B are arguing and talking to their mum). Those two sentences (spoken by A) are suggestive that A thinks B is wrong and adds He should apologise to add emphasis to their belief that B is wrong. If it were only two people then it would be completely wrong to say that, you would never address the other person as He.

However, in the UK if you were stopped while driving by the police they would always ask Have we been drinking tonight Sir? They use the we to mean you in the same way the we is used as you in One of us is wrong, aren't we? which really means One of us is wrong, aren't you?

Tip : Never answer the policeman's question with I don't know, have you been in The Bull and Bush sinking pints for the last eight hours too?, sarcasm only works one way with the police.


An example with no sarcasm whatsoever

One of us is going to have to work tonight, aren't we? That's not sarcastic if one of you does have to work tonight and neither of you know which one it'll be.

And the application of sarcasm

If you DO know it's your friend that has to work you can say One of us is going to have to work tonight, aren't we? that's sarcastic.

And in a not sarcastic manner to avoid a blunt statement

Similarly a boss could easily say to a worker One of us is going to have to work tonight, aren't we? and both parties know it means You (the worker) are going to have to work tonight. That's what I mean about it being a statement and not a real question.

It's definitely a 'trick' used to avoid saying a blunt statement or to give someone the opportunity to admit to something without it appearing forced so perhaps it is only used with 'questions' but as seen above it can be used in a direct meaning where two people are unsure of the outcome.

I'm not sure how different it is in AmE but I'll say that the Americans I know have no problem with this form but they are used to hearing it so they aren't a good test for BrE/AmE differences.

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Could you expand on the (un)grammaticality of "One of us is wrong, isn't he?" without any sarcastic or patronizing undertone? Just as in "Well, we can't both be right, so surely one of us is wrong, isn't he?" I feel that "aren't we?" would, without sarcasm, not fit at all, but if it does, I cannot for the life of me figure out why. –  oerkelens Jun 18 at 12:52
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When used with aren't we it's almost always got a sarcastic undertone. Without sarcasm it would just be We're wrong or One of us is wrong or One of us is wrong but I don't know which. In that particular phrase I would always assume the aren't we is sarcastic. It's a very fine line though and the intonation of the speaker is very important. –  Frank Jun 18 at 12:57
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And if I were to use a question tag without meaning sarcasm? Or do you mean a question tag is always sarcastic? Is there sarcasm in "well, at least one of us dodged that bullet, didn't he?" Am I correct is started to wonder about a specific idiomatic use of "aren't we" that has nothing to do any more with the actual normal formation of question tags? –  oerkelens Jun 18 at 12:59
    
The aren't we on it's own isn't enough to add the sarcasm. In combination with the statement the aren't we means and I (the speaker) know who that is going to be. So it's sarcastic when used with one of us is wrong but not sarcastic when used with one of us is going to have to speak first. –  Frank Jun 18 at 13:19
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Is "One of us is wrong, isn't he?" wrong, and if yes, why? I am explicitly not asking about question marks or sarcasm. Please. My very first comment did not get addressed at all I feel. I do not want to know what the sentence means - I know that. Is it ungrammatical or not? Please? –  oerkelens Jun 18 at 13:25

In American Standard English, all of your example sentences sound awkward, bordering on wrong,1 but people will still understand the meaning. The natural way for me to express these statements would be without a question tag at all — here are two variations on each, differing in nuance:

Isn’t one of these balls blue?
Shouldn’t one of these balls be blue?

and

Isn’t one of us wrong?
One of us must be wrong.

However, consistent with your intuition, the sentences with the plural question tags sound more wrong to me than than those with singular question tags. One of the easily noticeable differences between (Standard) American and British English is that British prefers plural forms in several places where American prefers singular, e.g. The committee have decided (Br) / The committee has decided (Am) — possibly this is another of those places. [EDIT: It has been pointed out in the comments that this is incorrect. Unfortunately, this leaves me with no explanation for your friend's contrary intuition.]

1 descriptivist’s “wrong” = “native speakers would not say it that way even for stylistic effect”

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As a native Br Eng speaker 'The committee has' sounds right to me, and I would substantiate that because we are treating the committee as one thing. I'd always thought that usages like 'the committee have' were simply wrong. But it would be 'the members of the committee have ' –  peterG Jun 19 at 14:39
    
@peterG I'm an AmEng speaker and I made that example up based on memory of things seen in British newspapers and the like. Can you suggest a better example? Or am I just wrong here? –  Zack Jun 19 at 14:41
    
Sorry, Zack, I think you're just wrong; I don't believe there's a difference between Br and Am Eng on this. I think it's a common and understandable error both sides of the pond, because there's a tendency to think of the committee, consisting of multiple people, as being plural. But it's not; it's one thing. Also I've just checked the BBC website as an example of Br Eng usage, and it has 'the BBC has ' (decided, produced, introduced etc) all over, which I'd say works in exactly the same way as the 'committee' example. –  peterG Jun 19 at 15:07
    
As a Brit I think there is a difference between Brits and Americans on this, that the Brits on the whole commit the error more frequently, and are more likely to accept wrong sentences. However, "the committee" isn't the best example, because it's done more often with company names than with "the commitee". But despite the error being less objected-to in the UK, style guides will typically still get it right. –  Steve Jessop Jun 19 at 15:19
    
Some versions of the error seem universal, though: encrypted.google.com/…;, while CNN even reverses the error to "Seattle Seahawks wins Super Bowl for first time in its history" (edition.cnn.com/2014/02/02/sport/…) ;-) –  Steve Jessop Jun 19 at 15:23

As a native speaker of American English,

One of these balls is blue, aren't they?

sounds definitely wrong. My explanation for why it feels wrong is that the core of the subject is One, which is singular. The prepositional phrase of these balls doesn't change the grammatical number of the subject. Compare:

Isn't one of these balls blue?

= One of these balls is blue, isn't it?

vs.

Aren't two of these balls blue?

= Two of these balls are blue, aren't they?

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I think one is treated a little differently when it is not a specific, definite object and just an unknown one of a set, I have often seen an unspecific one of a set treated as plural. –  Vality Jun 18 at 16:42

How has nobody used the phrases Royal We or Nosism yet? Simply put they mean you can refer to oneself using we. These ideas work in many languages, however in British its use can be bastardised to add sarcasm to patronisingly or disdainfully refer to the second party. This is often accompanied by a difference in authority between the two parties, said by the higher of the two, lending a rhetoric or accusatory tone.

It is still treated as a plural by verbs so yes, your use is correct.

One of us is wrong, aren't we?

Actually implies:

You are wrong and we both know it.

It does not work with inanimate objects. Your balls and cars and whatsits are all going to be its.


Note that it can also be used as a polite form (I'll nab Wikipedia's examples) but only in certain circumstances, usually in question.

Aren't we looking cute?
How are we feeling today?

These technically show the same level of patronisation but they also imply positive opinion and care. It wouldn't be hard to turn the second into something quite malevolent:

We're feeling fine, aren't we?

Which goes back to the original answer...

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The Royal We does not apply at all, as that is a form that one person uses to refer to themselves. If that were applied here, it would mean "one of us is wrong, and it is me - but I'm very important, so I refer to me as we" . Nosism can apply, but the patronizing address has been described at length already, for instance in Frank's answer. –  oerkelens Jun 19 at 9:13
    
It's all part of the same misuse of the word in British English. The patronising tone comes from a sarcastic use of a majestic we. To use it implies you are better, more correct than the other person. –  Oli Jun 19 at 9:16
    
The majestic we, or rather, the majestic plural is not British, however, it is quite common in several languages, and exclusively refers to the use of a plural pronoun to refer to one's singular self. The use of an "inclusive we", including the speaker and the addressee, but meaning the addressee, I see as a different phenomenon altogether, really. ("We've been speeding, haven't we?" feels distinctly differently toned from "We, the queen") –  oerkelens Jun 19 at 9:21
    
I've edited. I'm not disagreeing with what you've said, I'm just showing that this use here is a particularly British bastardisation of the majestic we. Welcome to British, the language designed to insult everybody without having said anything mean. –  Oli Jun 19 at 9:49
    
@Oli is correct. the "aren't we" in the example sentence is short for "are we not?" So the first example sentence contains an implicit shift of pronoun, from the third person singular "One" to the first person plural "we". That's why the verb tenses shift. That isn't the case with the balls, because it isn't the set of the balls that is blue, just the one ball, so the number and person remain the same. The reason that the person shifts in the example sentence is nosism. It's the same thing your math prof does when he says "And we can see that by dividing both sides of the equation . . ." –  shane Jun 19 at 11:35

If I had to add a question tag to the first example, I would've said:

One of us is wrong, isn't that so?

Is that so Is what you said correct? (With rising question intonation.)

It's grammatical, it's not clumsy and it sounds natural to my ear. As Frank mentioned in his answer, it still retains a sarcastic, rhetorical edge to it, as if challenging the listener to rebuke the obvious.

As for the balls sentence; I find both versions acceptable

(i) One of these balls is blue, isn't it?
(ii) One of these balls is blue, aren't they?

Sentence (ii) is a dialect/non standard British English usage.

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I feel the same: "Aren't we?" can only come after a "We are X" sentence. "One of us is X" isn't a "We are X". It sounds ok if we say "We have a member whose wrong, don't we?" but that's as far as you can stretch it. –  einpoklum Jun 19 at 9:26
    
+1 for the alternative question tag preserving grammatical number and circumventing the off-topic sex confusion :) –  oerkelens Jun 19 at 13:48

And now abide these three: lexis, syntax and semantics; and the greatest of these is semantics. While random contortions of grammar make for entertaining Fry and Laurie sketches, what typically matters is producing meaningful sentences that are precise and accurate representations of the speaker's intent. The first example simply isn't accurate and the truthfulness of the second example is inverted in the plural and singular forms.

One of us is wrong, aren't we?

Syntactically, the subject of the verb in the main clause is not "us" but "one of us". This is singular and the reason for your initial objection. More importantly, semantically, the question posed implies a situation that does not occur. Imagine for a minute that we have no words for "yes" and "no". The affirmative response to the question "are we not wrong" would be "we are wrong" - a statement that is factually incorrect in the context. Either "I" am wrong and "you" are right or else "you" are wrong and "I" am right. "We" are not wrong in either scenario. Also, the use of the first person does not sit comfortably with the fact that the latter scenario is heavily implied.

With the right tone you can read the whole phrase euphemistically ("you are wrong, aren't you") but I don't feel such a reading says anything fundamental about number agreement in general because, semantically at least, there is number agreement here. Compare with the "singular they":

One of those students is wrong, aren't they?

Syntactically we mix singular and plural here, but semantically there is agreement. It looks as though your examples are a generalisation of this approach. The "singular they" is perfectly good English and dates back to at least the 1500s. It appears to have come into being because we lack an appropriate gender-neutral term. Babies oddly excepted, the use of "it" is considered offensive when applied to human beings. Much as the historically and syntactically plural "you" later replaced the singular "thou", the plural "they" moved to occupy the role of the forbidden singular "it".

Yf... a psalme scape ony persone, or a lesson, or else yt. they omyt one verse or twayne. - Pylgrimage of perfection, William Bonde, 1526

However, in my limited experience I have never seen the "singular they" used to describe inanimate objects and have only rarely seen it used to describe animals. Use of "it" is certainly not taboo in the case of inanimate objects so there is no need to strain yourself to avoid it in the second example:

One of these balls is blue, isn't it?

My main objection to (plural) "they" in this case is that it performs a logical NOT on the question's implied answer. If I have a red ball, a blue ball and a green ball then a statement that is logically true in the singular form cannot be literally satisfied in the plural form, so must be false. I'm firmly in the descriptivist camp, but once you stray into the territory of accidentally inverting the meaning of a phrase I can't help thinking "that is wrong".

I think the confusion is created by the fact that you are generalising from a "singular they" that is syntactically plural and at the same time semantically singular (in these examples). This is fine because semantic cues typically trump syntactic cues where there is conflict. But if you start to extrapolate from this and try to derive other grammatical rulings from it you'll get into a pickle. The general case is nearly always a far more troublesome beast than the special case (ask Einstein).

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One of these answers is correct, aren't they?

That may just be the best way of wording a sentence that is structured wrong in the first place.

One of us is wrong, aren't we?

"aren't we?" seems to be grouping "all of us" into the same group - but if one is wrong and the other is not, the sentence just gets confusing.

That sentence should have a Red X, and needs to be rewritten.

I'll probably delete this tomorrow. I'm one of the last people who should be instructing others on Grammar.

:)

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I learned a simple rule as a child that helps when presented with an example such as "one of the balls is blue, xxxx xxxx?:

If you remove the prepositional phrase ("of the balls"), which form would you use? One...is blue, isn't it?"

That same "rule" is broken for the other example, that Frank covered so nicely. It's a special usage (derogatory, sarcasm) that is used in that specific way so frequently, the grammatical aspect of it is rarely questioned by native speakers.

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The rule I knew :) The point was that I was told the rule was always broken (including with the balls), even when no sarcasm was meant or intended. That confusion now at least has cleared up :) –  oerkelens Jun 19 at 16:30
    
Judging by the number of answers, votes and comments, I can see that we collectively have had issues and questions on this subject. Excellently presented question @oerkelens! :-) –  Kristina Lopez Jun 19 at 16:47

Considering the phrase, "One of these balls is blue, aren't they?"...

English is full of things that should be bad grammar but are considered good just because enough stupid people said it wrong for so long that it became "correct". I think this is a perfect example of that, because "they" does not agree with the subject, "one". The genitive clause ("of these balls") should not affect the pronoun ("they") that is referring to the subject ("One").

However a particularly annoying, passive aggressive, or British person might say that a positive answer to the question, "One of these balls is blue, aren't they?", does not preclude both balls from being blue, and therefore the phrase, "One of these balls", might refer to either ball... or even to both balls.

However I'd counter that annoying supposition with the clear argument that "One" always means "One" and not "More than one". If the borderline between singular and plural is unclear to anyone here, please raise your hand. Now raise both hands. OK good, now we understand.

Consider these six phrases:

A-1) "One of my balls hangs lower than the other one, don't they?" <-- Wrong
A-2) "One of my balls hangs lower than the other one, doesn't it?" <-- Correct

B-1) "One of these balls hangs lower than the other one, don't they?" <-- Wrong
B-2) "One of these balls hangs lower than the other one, doesn't it?" <-- Correct

C-1) "One of my balls is blue, aren't they?" <-- Wrong
C-2) "One of my balls is blue, isn't it?" <-- Correct

British people can choose to be wrong about this if they want, but only one of your balls can be blue or hang lower, folks, and "it" is the "lower" one. "They" are not both lower.

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Where did you come up with "One" always meaning "One" and not "More than one". When studying mathematical logic I remember there always was a distinction between "One" and "One and only one", similar to OR and XOR. –  Worse_Username Jun 20 at 7:36
    
@Worse_Username: English and math/logic use slightly different meanings for some words. For example, in English, "or" is almost always used to mean what logic would call XOR. –  cHao Jun 21 at 12:53
    
@Worse_Username I did not "come up with" these meanings. Quite simply, "one" means "one" and not "more than one" because the word, "one", is not the phrase, "more than one". –  CommaToast Jun 24 at 18:02
    
Sorry, I've made a horrible mistake when writing the previous comment. Indeed "One of..." doesn't strictly mean"More than one...". But, does "One of..." mean the same as "Exactly one...". If two of the balls were blue, would it render "One of these balls is blue" false? I think not. This leads me to believe that "One of..." is in this case equivalent to "One or more of...". –  Worse_Username Jun 24 at 18:38
    
@Worse_Username While I disagree with your assessment, actually I did explore your line of thinking prior to posting. However I was lead to the unavoidable fact that "one of" only refers to a single member of a set. Let "A" be a set of balls of unknown blueness (e.g. {ball-1,ball-2}). Let "B" be the subset of A where the balls are blue ("B ⊆ A"). Note B = {∅} and B ∉ A if no balls are blue, and #B ≥ 1 otherwise (no "{∅} ∈ everything" BS). Finally let "x" refer to any single element of B ("{x ∈ B | #x < 2}"). "One of" in our verbal example is equivalent to "x" here, whether B = {∅} or #B > 1. –  CommaToast Jun 24 at 21:54

For what it's worth, here's my layman's analysis of the logical concerns inherent in such tag-question negation (for anyone who should wish to think about this question from a strictly logical standpoint). But I stress that grammar need not follow logic, so be prepared to see some ungrammatical sentences used to get the point across.

For the sake of clarity, all tags are expanded.


Negating the Predicate

Mary is pretty, is she not [pretty]?

Yes, she is [pretty].

No, she is not [pretty].


John is not the brightest, is he [the brightest]?

Yes, he is [the brightest].

No, he is not [the brightest].

This is what we intuitively think a tag question is doing. No surprises here.

Negating the Subject

But what if we negated the subject thus?

Mary is pretty, is not she [pretty]?

Yes, she is [pretty].

No, John is [pretty].


John is not the brightest, is not he [not the brightest]?

Yes, he is not [the brightest].

No, Mary is not [the brightest].

This is completely unintuitive for some reason.

But we can't very well ignore this formulation. Some ideas of negation, such as in this question, cannot be easily expressed otherwise:

Not one (none) of us is wrong. =/= One of us is not wrong.

Not one (none) of these balls is blue. =/= One of these balls is not blue.

Not both of us are wrong. =/= Both of us are not wrong.

Not everything I say is a lie. =/= Everything I say is not a lie. == Nothing I say is a lie.

Not either (neither) of you is wrong. =/= Either of you is not wrong.

(Person/number agreement here is a different discussion entirely.)

In these cases, the negation of subject has the logical-complement meaning we would evidently like to express in a tag-question to the corresponding positive statement. I don't have a brilliant explanation for why this is (something about the variability of the subject that allows it to be applied to multiple members of a semantic group).

Hence, logic would dictate the following:

One of us is wrong, is not one [of us wrong]?

One of these balls is blue, is not one [of these balls blue]?

Both of us are wrong, are not both [of us wrong]?

Everything I say is a lie, is not everything [I say a lie]?

Either of you is wrong, is not either [of you wrong]?

Whether it makes sense to substitute other pronouns for one [of us], one [of these], both [of us], everything, or either [of you] is arguable.

And I'll close by saying that no one I know would say these abominations(?), let alone put an uncontracted not before the tag subject to imply subject negation, which would become indistinguishable when contracted anyway.


EDIT: Implications for the question at hand

In defiance of logical expressiveness, idiomatic English seems to allow only predicate negation in tag questions. If so, it is ungrammatical to express the logical complement of one of us, both of us, either of us, etc. in the tag.

Hence, we do the next best thing: we go on semantics. Note that we do not go on syntax, as we wouldn't say:

*Both of us are wrong, aren't they?

Unless one would make the argument that both inherits person from the prepositional object. Even then, that would cast (further) doubt on the grammaticality of One of us is wrong, isn't he/she?

Thus, the tag subject is chosen based on semantics, not constrained by the person/number of the subject in the main clause, and the tag verb observes subject-verb agreement.

Which means, given the following statements and their semantic assumptions:

1a. One of us is wrong. (Only one of us is wrong and it's you.)

1b. One of us is wrong. (Only one of us is wrong and it could be either of us.)

2a. One of these balls is blue. (Only one of the balls is blue.)

2b. One of these balls is blue. (More than one of the balls are blue.)

We could form tag questions:

1a. One of us is wrong, isn't he/she. (Depending on your sex)

1a. One of us is wrong, aren't we. (Patronizing we)

1b. One of us is wrong, isn't he/she. (Whoever he/she is)

2a. One of these balls is blue, isn't it. (Whichever one it is)

2b. One of these balls is blue, aren't they. (Whichever ones they are)

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Interesting insight, but I don;t see any explanation for "One of us is wrong, *are not one(s?) [of us wrong]" or any other potential derivation of "One of us is wrong aren't we". The semantic predicate / subject switch is interesting, but I was looking for an explanation of the grammatical number switch. –  oerkelens 2 days ago
    
@oerkelens Right, I believe the other answers have covered that issue pretty well. I being the latecomer, anything I could add to that discussion would probably only be comment worthy. But I did notice that an explanation for why "One of us is wrong aren't we." is a deviation from logic hadn't been fully fleshed out (and that there was a general vagueness as to what is logical), so that was what I focused on. –  ephemeralist 2 days ago
    
Added to my answer what I think. –  ephemeralist 2 days ago

"One of these balls is blue, isn't it?" sounds fine but I would take it to be the generic "isn't it" that can be used for any question or statement.

"One of these balls are blue, aren't they?" is what I, a British English speaker, would say. I know it's not 'correct' because it should be singular because it refers to one. But that's what I would say. (I doubt it's standard even for British English, I'm from the Midlands.)

"One of these balls is blue, aren't they?" sounds completely natural to me even if it's logically weird. It could have the semi-condescending sense Frank suggested but it could also just be a question. I would be more likely to say this than the first one.

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Would you also say, "One of them are"? For example, "Are you saying your brothers are better skateboarders than me?" --- "Well, one of them are!". That sounds utterly bizarre to me. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 18 at 16:12
    
No, definitely not. That sounds wrong to me too. –  user8674 Jun 18 at 16:15
    
Maybe this is something to do with how my accent kind of collapses isn't and aren't into something like "int"/"ent". –  user8674 Jun 18 at 16:38
    
I think it's because British people don't like to bring solid attention upon one thing but like to be passive aggressive (or "polite" as they call it) and say things in a round-about way. For example if you notice someone's fly is down, but you don't want to embarrass them, you might say, "One of the people in this room's fly is down, aren't they?" That way everyone has to check and it doesn't single out the one guy. Whereas in the States we would just say, "Dude your fly's down." Or possibly some cryptic algorithm like, "Ready for launch eh?" –  CommaToast Jun 20 at 1:14

To me

One of these balls is blue, isn't it

sounds profoundly wrong. If I were to ask you a question about an "it" or something, you should be able to examine that one thing and give an answer.

For example: "This ball is blue, isn't it?".

You only need to look at a single ball. When you say "One of these balls is blue" you're making a claim about all of the balls, that of them all only one is blue(or at least one, this is a separate issue though). Thus in order to answer the question, the answerer must examine all of the balls(potentially, in the at least one case). Not a single ball. It's not clear enough what the it would be referring to.

You could say "The it refers to the blue ball". But if there's no blue ball then you're referring to nothing, so it makes no sense to say, "no, it is not blue" when there is no it.

I think the plural versions sound more natural.

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This makes no sense at all to me. Would you also think “One of her teeth is missing, isn't it?” sounds wrong because you have to look at all her teeth to see if one is missing? How about “One of his legs is missing, isn't it?”? Would than be correct, then, because you only have to examine one leg (the one not missing) to see the statement is true? –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 19 at 9:41
    
@JanusBahsJacquet Those still sound wrong to me. Your argument for "This makes no sense at all" is simply that it sounds bad to you. But let's look at "One of her teeth is missing, isn't it". A response of "no" would expand to "No it isn't", which expands to "No, her missing tooth is not missing". Using the plural the response is "No, her teeth are not missing". –  Cruncher Jun 19 at 12:56
    
@JanusBahsJacquet The legs example doesn't change. If I look at the first leg, if it's missing, then I know there's a missing leg. If it's there then I have to look at the next leg to actually know if there's a missing. If it means exactly one are missing, then I always have to look at both legs, because I can never get a definitive answer by the state of the first leg. –  Cruncher Jun 19 at 12:57
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“No, it isn’t” does not expand to “her missing tooth is not missing”. It expands to “one of her teeth is not missing”, or (more idiomatically) “none of her teeth is missing”. Using the plural expands exactly as you say, which does not answer the question. Obviously, if you ask whether one of someone’s teeth is missing, you can see that all their teeth are not missing. My argument is not simply that is sounds bad to me, but that it makes no logical sense to make a question tag about an entire unit when only a subset of the unit was mentioned in the preceding statement. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 19 at 13:21
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Because that would be assuming the answer of the question before the question is even finished. The subject in a question tag is assumed to be the same as the subject in the preceding statement, and that subject here is “one of her teeth”. If you ask, for example, “Your father is Dutch, isn’t he?”, the tag expands to “… isn’t your father?”, not to “… isn’t your Dutch father?”. The subject complement is not part of the subject and does not magically become so because a question tag is added: it remains a subject complement, only understood in the tag, rather than expressed. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 19 at 13:31

"We" equals "you and I". There is no English word that equals "you or I".

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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indefinite_pronoun There actually is, but it is not often used. –  Vality Jun 18 at 20:19
    
@Vality Don't be coy...what word do you have in mind? –  user80584 Jul 1 at 15:06
    
Sorry, I was not trying to be coy, I left the word out by accident, I was referring to 'one' which can (and often is in my experience) indeed be used in that way, however I am not sure if it is predominantly British English. Again, my apologies. –  Vality Jul 1 at 15:48

In the phrase:

One of us is wrong, aren't we?

My understanding is that we refers to the us from the first sentence, lets start by expanding the sentence a little and reordering. We could first expand "aren't" into "are not", this however oddly does not un-contract simply and the words also must be reordered, ultimately we get:

One of us is wrong. Are we not?

To me it then becomes clear that we is referring to the 'us' from the first sentence, not the person who is wrong. As a British English speaker this phrase seems clear to me to be making the statement that one of us must be wrong, then making the challenge to the other person to disagree with this statement.

However, to come to why 'we' is used here, it is because 'we' refers to "the group of people including you and I, one of whom is wrong", it is effectively asking:

Do you and I not make up group of people which includes the person who is wrong?

Anyway, I am not an expert in this, but that is how I would read the second clause of that sentence.

Likewise, it seems to me in the sentence:

One of these balls is blue, aren't they?

The second part means:

Are these not the objects which make up the set of balls of which one is blue?

Again YMMV on this but that is my parsing of the sentence and why a plural is used there.

EDIT:

I gave this some more thought and had a chat with a friend who teaches English, they think that the correct form would be isn't one?, for example:

One of us is wrong, isn't one?

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I'd +1 for the edit...but i can't endorse all the overcomplication that came before it. :P –  cHao Jun 21 at 13:04

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