One in three knows what to do

A discussion among copy editors turned to a construction that writers use to make percentages easier to understand, “one in [a certain number],” and whether the verb should be singular or plural. I chose singular, but others chose the plural verb because such constructions aren’t actually referring to “one,” but to many. For example, “one in four Americans” refers to 25 percent of our population, or 74 million people. That’s definitely plural! However, the subject of the verb, it seems to me, is still “one.”

Just a couple of days later, I edited a story with this sentence:

One in three of these deaths are due to a fall; one in four deaths are from poisoning, and one in five are from burns.

Before I changed the verbs, I checked “Garner’s Modern American Usage.” Bryan Garner says that a singular verb is required. Ah, sweet prescriptivism!

So I changed the sentence to:

One in three of these deaths is due to a fall; one in four deaths isfrom poisoning, and one in five is from burns.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.