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In other words, which sentence is correct?

At least one of them is not coming.

At least one of them are not coming.

closed as off-topic by tchrist, p.s.w.g, Kris, Brian Hooper, TrevorD Aug 5 '13 at 22:53

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  • "Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. A list of these references can be found here: List of general references" – tchrist, p.s.w.g, Kris, TrevorD
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 3
    General Reference says that the correct answer here must be is. Also consider and contrast “One and only one of them is coming” with “One or more of them are coming” and with “More than one of them is coming” — which are all correct but may be confusing to simplistic applications of computer logic. – tchrist Aug 5 '13 at 3:53
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    "Simplistic applications of computer logic" smells a little condescending. I'd say more than one in particular is legitimately tricky. How does one tell that that phrase isn't a collective acting in plural? And even though Google n-grams are perhaps a general reference, it still would be more reassuring seeing a citation from a grammar manual or style guide or something of that nature. – John Y Aug 5 '13 at 4:28
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    Ngrams are tricky enough to use well that I wouldn't recommend closing a question based on the fact that it might be answered with a well-constructed Ngram. – Bradd Szonye Aug 5 '13 at 5:15
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    While it is a pretty basic question, I don't think a general reference would explain why “at least” doesn't matter to the grammatical number, especially when “one or more” takes a plural verb even though it means exactly the same thing. I would actually like to see an answer that explains the subtlety, as I'm having trouble expressing it concisely myself. – Bradd Szonye Aug 5 '13 at 6:52
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    By the way: In researching my answer, I looked for a source that stated unambiguously that “at least one” is singular in number, and I couldn't even find something in the right ball park. Please don't vote to close as general reference unless you can cite a clear and relevant source! (At least tchrist did cite a source, I just dispute that it's unambiguous or reasonably accessible.) – Bradd Szonye Aug 5 '13 at 8:34
15

In English, grammatical number often follows the form of the sentence rather than its meaning, especially in cases where the meaning allows for a variable number in the subject. In those cases, the verb usually agrees with the syntactic number of the closest subject noun instead of the meaning of the whole noun phrase.

For example:

Some of them are not coming.
One or more of them are not coming.

These sentences means the same thing as your example. They both use a plural verb because the nearest subject nouns, some and more, are plural.

However, in your example, the nearest noun is singular:

At least one of them is not coming.

Therefore, the verb follows the same (singular) form as the noun, even though the noun phrase in the subject allows for the possibility of more than one.

Note that this rule affects both the number and person of the verb:

Either those jerks or I am not coming.

In this case, the verb is the first-person singular am because the nearest subject noun is the first-person singular I. However, many people would find this construction awkward and rewrite the sentence in a more natural way, perhaps:

Either those jerks aren't coming, or I'm not.

  • Alternately, one may simply have unique rules such that it's always singular, regardless of the meaning of the phrase, because it's – well – one. See also: english.stackexchange.com/questions/35389/… – Bradd Szonye Aug 15 '13 at 15:22
  • I think it should be added that Either is the word that affects the number of your sentence and keeps it singular. It would be different if you were to say "Both those jerks and I are not coming." It's not enough to use the nearest noun, otherwise you could say "John and Sarah is here". But certain indefinite adjectives like either, every keep the collection in the singular. – Seth Jeffery Aug 20 '15 at 19:28
  • @SethJeffery It’s or that makes the difference, not either. When nouns linked by or differ in number, the nearest-noun rule applies. – Bradd Szonye Aug 24 '15 at 21:42
  • Ah, you're not wrong @Bradd Szonye ! :) – Seth Jeffery Aug 25 '15 at 8:39
4

"At least one of them is not coming." The subject of the sentence is one.

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