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Which is correct:

(1) He is the only one of those men who is always on time.
(2) He is the only one of those men who are always on time.

I've heard that (1) is correct by most grammar sites, but if you reword (2) it's (2'): "Of those men who are always on time he is the only one."

  • Do you mean 'I've heard the following: {1 is correct, according to most grammar sites, but if you reword 2 it's 'Of those men who are always on time he is the only one.'} or I've heard that 1 is correct (according to most grammar sites). But, if you reword 2, it's 'Of those men who are always on time he is the only one.'' – Edwin Ashworth Nov 16 '15 at 23:21
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    Your edit makes quite a difference. 'He is one of those men who is always on time.' is grammatical, but unusual; you might use it after someone has said to you 'None of those men is a good timekeeper', pointing out one to the critic. 'He is one of those men who are always on time' means he's in the set of excellent male timekeepers. (1) 'He is the only one of those men / them who is always on time.' is fine and obvious in meaning. But (2) 'He is the only one of those men / them who are always on time.' is very awkward and probably ungrammatical, and can't mean the same as (1). – Edwin Ashworth Nov 16 '15 at 23:34
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Choice (1) is definitely correct. The "is" ultimately refers back to the antecedent "He," the subject of the sentence. Your reworded example would simply invert the original, but would not change the grammatical structure (i.e., "is" is still singular because "he is the only one" is an independent clause with "he" still the subject).

  • I agree with the fundamental analysis (needs to trace back to the singular antecedent), but I believe that the antecedent is in fact "one" not "he". You can remove the prepositional phrase and get: "He is (the only one) (who is always on time). The "who" refers to "the only one" and hence is singular (although in fairness, "the only one" is of course the same as "He"). – Nonnal Nov 17 '15 at 0:21
  • No, as you yourself suggest (in the parenthetical that begins "although in fairness"), the antecedent can, in fact, be either, since an antecedent is simply a noun referent, usually a pronoun, that comes earlier in the sentence, and both "he" as a personal pronoun and "one" as an indefinite pronoun fit that bill. However, in the context of the sentence, the "only one who is always on time" is subordinate (and thus could not exist as a separate idea) without the "he is," so I believe "he" is the ultimate referent, the "one" merely being a predicate nominative amplification to explain the "he." – Languagemaven Nov 17 '15 at 13:36
  • The only issue I have is that saying "Of those men who is always on time he is the only one" doesn't sound right, even though it is. – Andrew Jones Nov 17 '15 at 20:20
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Both are correct, but they have different meanings.

  1. If you want to say that he is always on time

of those men functions as an attributive adjective, qualifying 'one'. To understand how you should phrase a sentence, it can help to remove extra elements like this, which could be confusing. When you take this out, you have "He is the only one who [is/are] always on time". Because 'who' is the subject of that verb in the second clause, the verb must be 'is'.

  1. If you want to say that they are always on time

Consider the phrase they are always on time. If you already had a sentence like 'they [the men] are here', you could add this information as the men, who are always on time, are here. In your sentence, the second option matches this structure - he is the only one of those men, who are always on time.

This makes sense except that when you take out the descriptive clause and adjectival phrase, you realise the sentence you have says that 'he is the only one', which is grammatically correct but not really semantically correct because 'one' is not defined - a reader would tend to ask 'the one what?' and because of this, the reader expects a 'who is [something]' phrase about the man. Because of this, the reader will typically assume your 'who' phrase to have the verb 'is' to apply to the man, and would assume that 'are' is just a mistake. To prevent the reader from assuming and then asserting that you are wrong, insert a comma to distinguish that it is only a relative clause and not integral to the meaning of the sentence: "He is the only one of those men, who are always on time".

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