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THE WORD

Agreeing to disagree

``I'M NOT ONE of those people who like to blame the French for things," Nora Ephron wrote recently (without the italics) in a New York Times op-ed piece.

``'Smith' is one of those dramas that tries to create an anti-hero," wrote TV columnist Tom Dorsey in the Louisville Courier-Journal last Tuesday.

And a week ago in this space, I cautioned, ``You don't want to be one of those misinformed cranks who go around editing road signs."

Singular or plural--which verb is better? Pat Follansbee, an English teacher in Norwood, read the column and e-mailed to suggest that, in the case of my misinformed cranks, the verb should be goes, ``since the subject of the sentence is actually one."

That's a common opinion, but not the only one. Ever since Shakespeare's time, according to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, both verb forms have been common in this construction. People tend to use whichever seems more appropriate--singular when they're focused on the one, plural when the group is more important.

For instance, if you say ``I've got one of those cars that runs for 200,000 miles," thinking of your trusty Toyota Corona, the singular sounds normal. But try ``I want to buy one of those cars that run for 200,000 miles." Now you're talking about a lot of unspecified vehicles, and a plural verb works fine.

This waffling is likely to continue, says the American Heritage Dictionary Guide to Contemporary Usage; the AHD's usage panel prefers the plural verb, but only by 60 percent to 40, a ratio that hasn't changed in 40 years. Have it your way, the guide concludes.

But if this casual approach is not your style, you can join the purists; they're lined up, neatly starched and pressed, on the plural-verb side of the debate. Grammar, they say, demands ``He's one of those men who like washing dishes"; there's no two ways about it.

``This construction requires a plural verb in the relative clause," says Bryan Garner (Garner's Modern American Usage, 2003). The relative pronoun ``who or that is the subject, and it takes its number from the plural noun to which [it] refers." Barbara Wallraff (``Word Court") and Patricia T. O'Conner (``Woe Is I") agree; just turn the sentence around, they say, and you'll see the light: ``Of those men who like washing dishes, he is one."

So if you want to be a stickler on this issue, you'll stick with the plural verb: ``I am one of those people who love diagramming sentences."

. . .

KILL `TIL, VOL. 1: Apostrophes are such a nuisance--horning in where they're not wanted (``Pumpkin's for sale"), disappearing when you expect them (``Ladies Room")-- that you'd think we could all agree to dump one that's truly expendable.

But no; here come the Fox TV folks with a new comedy they're calling, perversely, ``'Til Death." Not till, the way their source, the Book of Common Prayer, has spelled the word since 1549; not until, also irreproachable English; but 'til, a spelling with nothing to recommend it.

Fox is not alone in its mystifying loyalty to 'til. Not long ago, a reader e-mailed to recommend I drop till and switch to until: ``It does a perfectly adequate job," he said, ``and does not need to be confused with the verb till." If I insisted on slumming, he allowed, I could stoop to the ``somewhat acceptable contraction" 'til.

Defenders of 'til, I'm sorry to bring bad news, but it's you who are confused. Till is a fine old English word, recorded in the year 800; so is the somewhat younger until, a compound of und (``up to") and till. For seven centuries, they've both been widely (and properly) used to mean ``before or up to a specified time."

It's 'til that's the party crasher, a mini-monster created by some misguided 19th-century reformer and sent forth to confuse editors, provoke arguments, and get in the way of the double quotes that go around titles like ``'Til Death."

The Oxford English Dictionary, which labels 'til merely a ``variant of till" or ``short for until," quotes from a 1939 usage guide: ``Till, until, ('til), these three words are not distinguishable in meaning. Since 'til in speech sounds the same as till and looks slightly odd on paper, it may well be abandoned." Good advice then, and good advice now.

For four weeks' worth of The Word, visit boston.com/news/globe/ideas/freeman. E-mail freeman@globe.com.

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