Could someone please explain to me which of these sentences is correct and why?

  1. Only one out of three respondents (29%) thinks otherwise.
  2. Only one out of three respondents (29%) think otherwise.

I understand that the subject of this sentence is singular, and therefore, theoretically, the verb should be singular, but this just doesn’t sound right.

Could someone please help?

  • If you read the percentage out loud as well, I agree that the singular sounds clumsy—perhaps the percentage kind of ‘takes over’ as the subject, even though it’s really just a parenthetical. Without the percentage, the singular sounds perfectly fine: “Only one in three respondents thinks otherwise”. (Incidentally, I believe you mean one in three here: only one out of three respondents to me means that there were exactly three respondents, and only one thought otherwise; but that would be 33⅓%, not 29%. One in three, on the other hand, just means ‘every third’.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 2 '15 at 12:14
  • Is it really that many?? – Hot Licks Jul 2 '15 at 12:14
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    First of all, the subject isn't singular. The subject is a NP that has a plural head ("respondents"). To answer your question, both #1 and #2 versions are considered to be acceptable in today's standard English (according to the 2002 H&P's CGEL). – F.E. Jul 2 '15 at 18:12
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    er, neither of those two linked to threads actually have a solid answer. If this thread is re-opened, then, maybe someone will actually use vetted grammar sources to compose a decent solid answer. – F.E. Jul 2 '15 at 19:44
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    Basically the answer is this: Your sentence involves a proportional construction. Because the head ("respondents") of your subject is plural, that allows the plural verb ("think"); but due to the presence of "one", the optional singular override is also allowed which allows the singular verb ("thinks"). So, both plural and singular verbs are acceptable in your example sentence. – F.E. Jul 2 '15 at 19:59

Because you are referring to a solitary member of a group for the subject, the singular conjugation of "to think" is correct. In this case the reference to the group of three is adjectival to the one member. While I know it might sound strange, to an American ear it is fine.


Whenever you have trouble with subject verb agreement, I have a tip I always use. Throw everything out of the sentence that isn't the subject or verb.

Original: One out of three people thinks that is correct. Out of three people is a modifying prepositional phrase. Now let's throw out everything else except the subject and verb.

One thinks.

This is, in fact, correct because this is the correct form of thinks for the subject. So whenever you have issues with subject verb agreement, dig out only the subject and verb, say it out loud, and then you'll know whether or not it is correct.

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