A tricky agreement situation arose for "Bagehot" while writing his eponymous column in The Economist last week. The topic was the "furious festival of blame in Britain recently". Among other scandals, two crude radio shock comics recently called a much-loved aging actor's answering machine and told him that one of them had fucked his granddaughter, and the call was recorded, and editorially approved, and actually broadcast. Bagehot wrote:
Two comedians make cruel jokes on BBC radio: heads must roll! (They did—one of the comedians, plus two executives, were forced out.)
My interest is in the agreement form chosen for the verb I have underlined. People like Stephen Fry in prescriptivist mood would say that the subject is the noun phrase one of the comedians, which is singular, so it should be was forced out. However, I'm not dinging Bagehot on the plural agreement form. I believe it's not just a simple binary decision in this case. Things are much more subtle and interesting.
I set aside, by the way, the fact that Stephen Fry claims none of them should take singular agreement. There is good evidence from usage that he is simply wrong there, contra prescriptivist dogma; but that's another story. Here we are concerned with noun phrases (NPs) like one of them, where things are very different, and considerably clearer; and also with subject NPs followed by parenthetical extra phrases like plus two executives.
Notice, if the sentence had been One comedian and two executives were forced out, then were would be uncontroversially fine, because coordinate subjects with and as the coordinator generally act as syntactically plural noun phrases. But Bagehot's sentence doesn't say that. It says one of the comedians was forced out. The preposition phrase (PP) plus two executives is dropped in as a parenthetical interruption, adding that two executives also were. (Yes, I think it is quite clear that plus is a preposition.) Parenthetical PPs dropped in after subjects do not affect agreement: in A young boy, with his mother, was sitting sadly in the corner of the doctor's waiting room, we get was rather than were.
Nor do partitive PPs like of the comedians, for the most part, affect agreement. True, there is more variation on this; but as a spot check, searching for and one of them are on .edu sites yields only about five genuine examples, some clearly written by people with a shaky command of English; while searching for and one of them is yields about 2,760 hits. It is normal for the plural NP in phrases like of them or of the comedians not to affect agreement properties. So one of the two comedians were forced out would normally be judged ungrammatical.
But as I said above, this does not mean Bagehot is to be dinged. It seems to me that he faced a genuine crux. A syntactic quandary. The distracting plural NP two executives intervenes, and is closer to the verb than the singular one; and there is another plural noun (comedians — irrelevant though it normally should be) intervening as well, upping the pressure to think plural. And to cap it all, in terms of the meaning expressed by the whole clause, notice that the total number of people said to have been forced out stands at 3.
I think Bagehot may well have been right to think that were would be the safest and least disruptive choice of agreement form to use here. Reasonable people could differ on the point, but one could say that what Bagehot wrote was thoroughly justifiable. To write one of the comedians, plus two executives, was forced out might very well be judged grammatically worse.
Now, I take it that for most Language Log readers, or for anyone with a certain amount of understanding of basic grammar, what I have just said will seem commonsensical enough. I hope so. But to theoretical linguists, I fear it may seem radical, even scary. I am suggesting that the right answer here is not fixed by the facts of anyone's internalized grammar. I'm implicitly taking the view that agreement can be a judgment call. It can be somewhat (though not in detail) like the esthetic judgment of whether this tie will go with that shirt, or the ethical judgment of whether the cost of the bureaucratic accounting involved would make it silly to take the dollar bill I found and turn it in to the police so I should keep it.
More specifically, I think there are situations in which the constraints set by the grammar of English leave things balanced in a state where nothing is fully satisfactory — there is no unimpeachable solution — so you just have to chance it, and go with one decision rather than another on a basis of… well, taste and educated discernment.
I'm suggesting that perhaps the psychogrammar in your head is not an automatically functioning module that strictly defines what's grammatical for you and what's not. It's a rather disorganized collection of conditions and prohibitions and desiderata, and it doesn't always provide a unique answer to every grammatical question. Sorry, but I think that might be the situation we face as linguists. And if so, then we can't make things otherwise by just stipulating or shouting — or by avoiding fine-detail description of subject-verb agreement altogether.