Florida’s Winged Elm

My husband is a professional writer who does two weekly gardening columns for our newspaper. Here’s a sentence he wrote for a recent column about winged elms (a popular tree in Central Florida). Does anything strike you as you read it?

One of few Florida natives that have recently burgeoned in popularity, this deciduous tree grows rapidly in sun or light shade, forming an upright, vase-shaped crown.

This sentence is an example of a hotly contested issue among English instructors and professional writers and editors. My camp says that the sentence is correct as written. But many experts would write the sentence this way, with has instead of have:

One of few Florida natives that has recently burgeoned in popularity, this deciduous tree grows rapidly in sun or light shade, forming an upright, vase-shaped crown.

Who’s right? I’ll leave it up to you. I used to allow my students to do it either way. (My husband – who wrote the sentence without discussing it with me – delighted me by coming down on my side of the question.)

But I’m convinced (of course!) that my way is the right way. Here’s my reasoning. See what you think:

1.  I ask myself what I see when I visualize the sentence.

This is one of my favorite ways to analyze a sentence and untangle a usage problem. What do I see here? “few Florida natives.” So I’d write it this way: “One of few Florida natives that have recently burgeoned in popularity…”

2.  I try rewording the sentence. Contrasting the two sentences can lead me to the correct verb.

One Florida native that ___ recently burgeoned in popularity….

One of few Florida natives that ___ recently burgeoned in popularity….

To me, these two clauses are different. The first is clearly about one native tree.  The second is more complex: The winged elm is one of several trees that recently burgeoned in popularity.

So I would write:

One Florida native that has recently burgeoned in popularity…

One of few Florida natives that have recently burgeoned in popularity…

What’s your take on this?

You can click here to download a free subject-verb agreement handout. Today’s issue is discussed in Rule 6.

Winged Elm

                        Winged Elm 

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2 thoughts on “Florida’s Winged Elm

  1. Kelly Pomeroy

    You’re absolutely right. I can’t believe that other grammarians would disagree. What I thought you were going to talk about was “one of few” rather than “one of a few”. I debated whether the way your husband had it was correct or not. I concluded that it’s not incorrect, but it does strike me as odd.

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