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Which one of the following sentences is correct:

  1. One of the most crucial problems that exist in industrial countries such as ...
  2. One of the most crucial problems that exists in industrial countries such as ...
  • 1
    Possible duplicate of It's one of the best [plural noun] that + has (or) have – Nathaniel Jan 13 '16 at 3:41
  • @Nathaniel Hi, Nathaniel, sorry, but the answers to the duplicate don't seem to be clear. I saw a lot of similar questions, but I am not sure if it is OK to closevote it. Let me search some more fore a better duplicate. – user140086 Jan 13 '16 at 5:13
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    @Rathony : In the past week, I've seen this question asked three times. The problem with marking it duplicate is that the question is never answered the same way twice. In the context of this question, some of the answers would indicate "exist" is right, others "exists," and yet others would say either is fine. As you say, the other answers don't seem to be clear. It seems unfair to nail someone for a duplicate question, close a question for being duplicate, when the duplicates are anything but definitive, which is why I support leaving it open. Case-by-case specifics matter. – Benjamin Harman Jan 13 '16 at 5:36
  • @BenjaminHarman I can't agree with you more. Some duplicate questions have low-quality answers. But it is the same question. Hmm... – user140086 Jan 13 '16 at 5:40
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    @Araucaria Thanks. I think your answer looks better than the previous answers in duplicates. Hmm... – user140086 Jan 13 '16 at 11:55
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Short answer

Either sentence is fine. The notional Subject of the verb exist is the plural noun phrase the most crucial problems. However, in English the word one which occurs earlier in the larger noun phrase can optionally override the expected subject-verb agreement in the relative clause causing a singular verb form.

Full answer

  1. One of the most crucial problems that exist in industrial countries such as ...
  2. One of the most crucial problems that exists in industrial countries such as ...

Based solely on the grammar there are two possible readings of these sentences:

  • A: There is a group of crucial problems which exist in industrial countries. This problem is a member of that group

  • B: This problem is a member of a group of crucial problems. This problem exists in industrial countries.

Common sense tells us that the writer wants to convey meaning A, and not meaning B. We could model the sentences like this according to their meaning:

  • A: One of [the most crucial problems that exist_ in industrial countries] is
  • B: One of [the most crucial problems] that exist_ in industrial countries is

Here we can see that with meaning A, the notional Subject of the verb exist is the plural noun phrase the most crucial problems. In B, the notional Subject of the verb exist is the singular noun phrase one of the most crucial problems.

Now it would be nice, wouldn't it, if sentence (1) always meant A, and sentence (2) always meant B. However, that's not the case. The fact is that native speakers, both in speech and writing, often use sentences like (2) to express meanings like A. The reason is that the word one often overrides normal verb agreement. In other words although sentence (1) definitely expresses A, sentence (2) would be used to express either A or B.

Here is what a vetted grammar source, based on real data, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has to say about this:

. . . The relativized element in these examples is object. Where it is the subject that is relativized, the expectation would be that the number of the verb would be determined by the antecedent, giving a plural verb in Type I, and a singular in Type II. In practice, however, singular verbs are often found as alternants of plurals in Type I:

[22]

  • i. He's [one of those people who always want to have the last word]. -- (Type I )

  • ii. He's [one of those people who always wants to have the last word]. -- (Type I )

  • iii. He's [one of her colleagues who is always ready to criticize her]. -- (Type II )

Examples [i] and [iii] follow the ordinary rules, but [ii] involves a singular override. It can presumably be attributed to the salience within the whole structure of one and to the influence of the Type II structure (it is in effect a blend between Types I and II ). But it cannot be regarded as a semantically motivated override: semantically the relative clause modifies people. This singular override is most common when the relative clause follows those or those + noun.

In this kind of situation, thinking about the grammar is not the most useful guide. Even working out what the grammar is will take you quite some time. Go with your intuition!

Grammar note:

You may well be wondering why I used the term notional Subject instead of just Subject. The reason is that both of these noun phrases occur outside of the exist clause. They are potential antecedents for the Subject of the relative clause, but they do not occur within the relative clause itself.

References:

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Huddleston & Pullum [et al], 2002.

1

It can be either. If the pronoun "that" refers to the sentence's subject "one," then it is "exists." If "that" refers to the prepositional phrase's object "problems," then it is "exist." Whereas a prepositional phrase isn't included as part of a subject, the subject that "to exist" refers to is the restrictive clause's subject "that," not the sentence's subject "one." As a pronoun, "that" can refer to either antecedent, to either "one" or "problems." In this instance, whichever one you want it to refer to is indicated by how you conjugate the verb, whether you say "exists" or "exist." Either way, it tends to make no difference in how the sentence would be interpreted.

By the way, the verb that the subject "one" does correspond to is after the "as," after the ellipsis.

Incidentally, this question has been asked and answered many times before. Here is a link that refers to one of those prior posts and that substantiates this response:

One of the many things that (have or has) affected me was?

Is this correct? "One of the things that makes him great is..."

  • I'm still perplexed by your preposition phrase assertion. Maybe you could ask a question about that here on ELU? – Araucaria Jan 13 '16 at 11:59
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The subject referring to the verb exist(s) is actually that. If you isolate one that exist(s), it is evident that the proper form is exists. You do have to be careful, because it sounds as if exists is referring to either most or one.


Sidenote

If the subject of the sentence was most, then you have to look at the context for the word. Consider the two following sentences:

  1. Most of the cookies were eaten by him.
  2. Most of the cookie was eaten by him.

The first sentence is saying that there are many cookies, and that he ate more than half of them. Then, we use the plural form of the verb.

The second sentence is saying that there is one cookie, and he ate more than 1/2 of it. In this case, we use the singular form of the verb.

  • It depends upon the context. – AMACB Jan 13 '16 at 4:49
  • the word one, which is what the dependent clause is referring to, is clearly singular; thus, that is singular so exists must be singular as well. – AMACB Jan 13 '16 at 4:51
  • Incidentally, there is much literature on this very subject. The pronoun "that" in the dependent clause can refer to either antecedent, "one" or "problems." Which one of these two options that "that" actually refers to in this case would be indicated by how the speaker conjugated the verb. – Benjamin Harman Jan 13 '16 at 4:54
  • problems is not an antecedent because it is an object of the preposition. – AMACB Jan 13 '16 at 4:56
  • I see that you updated the answer. I'll delete my comments regarding "that is." – Benjamin Harman Jan 13 '16 at 4:58

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