Coach Paterno and the syntactic blind alley

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Nov 11 01:31:11 UTC 2011

On Nov 10, 2011, at 7:42 PM, Dan Goncharoff wrote:

> Why is "one of my friends' fathers" something to talk about?
> I have many friends. They all have fathers. Collectively they are correctly
> called my friends' fathers. When I want to refer to one member of this
> group, that person is "one of my friends' fathers".
> What am I missing??
> DanG

You're referring to a single father.  I look at this as the Saxon counterpart of the prepositional (non-Saxon?) construction which is not "the fathers of one of my friends" but rather "the father of one of my friends".  Given that we say "one of my friends' fathers is here" and not "one of my friends' fathers are here" and that we pronominalize "one of my friends' fathers" as "he" or as "they", this is clearly singular grammatically, whence the apparent mismatch between singular referent and plural form.  It may not bother you but it sometimes bothers me, especially since the alternative--"one of my friends' father"--is totally impossible, as I think we agree.

In fact, though, not *everyone* agrees.  Cf.
Q:  This is a tricky one (for me at least).  Does anybody know which sentence is correct and why?

1) One of my friends' mothers has a boat.

2) One of my friends' mother has a boat.

A:  The 2nd one is correct.  "Mother" has to be singular as you're talking about one special mother only: The mother of one of your friends.

These are actually quite common.  Thus, to take a few of many (even if it's not really the 4.1 million hits Google estimates):

Here in the past 2 months one of my friends mother died.
One of my friends mother suffer with Transverse Myelitis
I am worried as one of my friends mother have died due to cervical cancer. (interesting agreement!)
Or so I was told by one of my friends mother's  (interesting apostrophe!)

In fact "one of my friends mother" (ignoring the apostrophe, as writers usually seem to do) appears to be much more common than "one of my friends mothers". And fathers are similar.  Can we really claim that speakers/writers don't have a problem with this construction?

> On Thu, Nov 10, 2011 at 5:53 PM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at> wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM>
>> Subject:      Re: Coach Paterno and the syntactic blind alley
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> On Thu, Nov 10, 2011 at 10:03 AM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at>
>> wrote:
>>> one of my friend's father(s)
>> Is there any reason even to try to get out of this one? You hear it or
>> read it - IME, usually in the form, "one of my friends' fathers" -
>> everywhere, thousands of times a day. Being concerned with this is
>> like being concerned that the number of speakers who still say
>> "EK-skwizzit" and not "ek-SKWIZZit" is vanishingly small.
>>> either she or I am/is/are going
>> In high school, ca. 1950, I was taught a scrip for this one: in this
>> kind of construction, whatever NP follows _or_ controls the number of
>> the verb. Hence,
>> either she or _I _ AM going
>> Needles to say, after having (semi-)automatically applied this rule
>> for more than sixty years, I now feel that it's perfectly "natural."
>> --
>> -Wilson
>> -----
>> All say, "How hard it is that we have to die!"---a strange complaint
>> to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
>> -Mark Twain
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society -
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list