People pop in fairly regularly to complain about “one of the only”, which I’m just really not that interested in. Usually the complaints are in response to my argument a few years ago that it was perfectly grammatical and interpretable (specifically rebutting Richard Lederer’s silly claim that only is equivalent to one and therefore is inappropriate for referring to multiple items). I haven’t gotten as many only=one complaints lately, but I’ve now received a new objection, presented as part of a comment by Derek Schmidt:

When [only] precedes a noun used in plural, it implies that there are no other similar items that belong to the list. “The only kinds of writing utensils on my desk are pencils and pens and highlighters.” [...] But I have many of those pens, so if someone asked if they could borrow a pen, and I said, “No, that’s one of the only writing utensils on my desk!” that would be a little disingenuous and if someone was standing at my desk and saw the number of writing utensils, they would be baffled and think me a fool. Rightly so. Because they would understand it (logically, even) as meaning “that’s one of the few”, which is very false. So… “one of the only” means about as much as “one of them”.

To buttress his point, he referred me to a grammar column in the Oklahoman, which I never grow tired of noting was once called the “Worst Newspaper in America” by the Columbia Journalism Review. That was 14 years ago now, and I sometimes wonder if it is fair to keep bringing this up. Then I read Gene Owens’s grammar column in it and I wish the CJR had been harsher.*

About one example of “one of the only”, Owens writes:

“Now I can understand if he were the only English speaker or if he were only one of a few English speakers,” Jerry said, “but I don’t know how he could be one of the only English speakers.” That’s easy, Jerry. If he was any English speaker at all, he was one of the only English speakers in the area. In fact, he was one of the only English speakers in the world. [...] The TV commentator probably meant “one of the few English speakers in the area.” But even if the colonel was “one of the many English speakers in the area,” he still was one of the only ones.

It continues on in this vein for a while, and but his point seems to be approximately the same as Schmidt’s, boiling down to the following statements:

  • It is grammatical to say “one of the only”.
  • It is used regularly in place of “one of the few”.
  • Examining it literally, one could say “one of the only” to describe something that there are many of.
  • This would be a strange situation to use it in.
  • Therefore “one of the only” oughtn’t be used in the case where it wouldn’t be strange.

Up till the last sentence, I agree. In fact, I don’t think any of those points are controversial.** But the last sentence is a big leap, and one that we demonstrably don’t make in language. Would it be silly of me to say:

(1) I have three hairs on my head.

Thankfully I’m still young and hirsute enough to have many more than three hairs on my head, and I think we’d all agree it would be a silly statement. But, parsing it literally, it is true: I do have three hairs on my head, though in addition I have another hundred thousand. In case this is such a weird setting that you don’t agree it’s literally true, here’s another example:

(2) Some of the tomatoes I purchased are red.

If I show you the bin of cherry tomatoes I just bought, and they’re all red, am I lying? No, not literally. But I am being pragmatically inappropriate — you expect “some” to mean “some but not all”, just as you expect “three” to generally mean “three and no more”. These are examples of what’s known as a scalar implicature: we expect people to use the most restrictive form available (given their knowledge of the world), even though less restrictive forms may be consistent too.***

To return to Schmidt’s example, it may be truthful but absurd to protest that one of 30 pens on my desk is “one of my only pens”. But just because the truth value is the same when I protest that one of two pens on my desk is “one of my only pens”, this doesn’t mean that the pragmatic appropriateness doesn’t change either. Upon hearing “one of the only”, the listener knows, having never really heard this used to mean “one of many”, that pragmatically it will mean “one of the (relatively) few”.

There is, perhaps, nothing in the semantics to block its other meanings, but no one ever uses it as such, just as no one ever says they have three hairs when they have thousands. This is a strong constraint on the construction, one that people on both sides of the argument can agree on. I guess the difference is whether you view this usage restriction as evidence of people’s implicit linguistic knowledge (as I do) or as evidence of people failing to understand their native language (as Schmidt & Owens do).

Finally, and now I’m really splitting hairs, I’m not convinced that “one of the only” can always be replaced by “one of the few”, as the literalists suggest. If we’re being very literal, at what point do we have to switch off of few? I wouldn’t have a problem with saying “one of the only places where you can buy Cherikee Red“, even if there are hundreds of such stores, because relative to the number of stores that don’t sell it, they’re few. But saying “one of the few” when there’s hundreds? It doesn’t bother me, but I’d think it’d be worse to a literalist than using “one of the only”, whose only problem is that it is too true.

Summary: If a sentence could theoretically be used to describe a situation but is never used to describe such a situation, that doesn’t mean that the sentence is inappropriate or ungrammatical. It means that people have strong pragmatic constraints blocking the usage, exactly the sort of thing that we need to be aware of in a complete understanding of a language.


*: I am being unfair. Owens’s column is at least imaginative, and has an entire town mythos built up over the course of his very short columns. But I never understand what grammatical point he’s trying to make in them, and as far as I can tell, I’d disagree with it if I did. As for the “worst newspaper” claim, this was largely a result of the ownership of the paper by the Gaylord family, who thankfully sold it in 2011, though the CJR notes it’s still not great.

**: Well, it might be pragmatically appropriate to use “one of the few” in cases where the number of objects is large in absolute number but small relative to the total, such as speaking about a subset of rocks on the beach or something.  I’m not finding a clear example of this, but I don’t want to rule it out.

***: Scalar implicatures were first brought to my attention when one of my fellow grad students (now a post-doc at Yale), Kate Davidson, was investigating them in American Sign Language. Here’s an (I hope fairly accessible and interesting) example of her research in ASL scalar implicature.

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