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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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You know I hate it when people mock English-as-a-second-language speakers for their grammatical missteps. If your sense of humor is so unrefined as to find ESL speakers’ errors jestworthy, I think you’re a boor. Internet society doesn’t think the same, but then again, Internet society also thinks it’s acceptable to shout “FIRST!” in a comment thread and that being racist when you know better is somehow subversive.

So I hope you won’t think me hypocritical for mocking someone whose knowledge of English is clearly lacking. There’s a key difference, though, in that English is this person’s native language. On an old post talking about one of the only, I recently got this comment:

“‘One of the only’ is poor grammar because ‘one of’ implies plural and ‘the only’ implies one. ‘One of the one’ doesn’t do much for logic.”

No.

If you have gone a sizable portion of your life speaking and hearing English (which I assume one has to have to be bloviating on what’s poor grammar) and you think that only implies one, then you do not know English. And yet, this is a common misconception:

“How can something be ‘one of the only’ when ‘only’ means ‘one?'”

“‘One of the only’ – could this be correct usage? ‘Only’ means ‘alone, solely.'”

Only refers to one or sole and has no meaning.”

Guys, I don’t know where you think you’ve gotten the authority to lecture people on English, but if you can’t understand the meaning of only, you do not have that authority.* Sure, in some situations, only refers to a single item, as in:

(1a) This is my only stick of gum. Do not eat it.

But only really means “this and no more”, where “this” can be singular or plural or mass. I could just as readily say:

(1b) These are my only sticks of gum. Do not eat them.

You absolutely cannot be fluent in English and not have been exposed to perfectly acceptable usages of plural only. Google Books N-grams shows that over the past 200 years of published works, one in every 100,000 pairs of words is only two. Including only 3/4/5 gets us up to 1 in 50,000. Given that a person hears around that many words each day, and that there are many other uses of plural only, it’s a conservative estimate to say that a fluent English speaker is exposed to plural only at least once a day.

Non-singular only isn’t questionable, it isn’t obscure, it isn’t rare, it isn’t debatable. Only does not mean or imply or refer to “one” in general. If you think it does, you are not sufficiently informed to correct anyone’s usage.


*: Which is weird, because even some authors who are well-regarded by the literary set (though not by linguists) claim this. Richard Lederer & Richard Dowis’s book “Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay” contains an absurd assertion that one of the only both is oxymoronic and new. Neither is true, not even a little, and yet Lederer is the author of a newspaper column as well as tens of books on English.

In Wednesday’s post, I was complained about how the Daily Mail treated an obvious non-expert as an expert, writing an article that gave us her ill-informed opinions as though they somehow mattered. Now, having looked through the comments on that article, I’m compelled to do a bonus Friday post, because some of the comments are masterpieces of grammar ramblings. I’ve posted commentary below them, but really, they’re the stars of the show, and I’m just the nettling MC making the obvious joke.

A large number of students and adults can’t tell the difference between
their, there, they’re
It’s, its’, its,
loose, lose
– Batman, Newport, strange planet called ‘Earth’, 07/12/2010 14:43

Its’?

Not to nitpick, but there is no such word as its’
– Natalie, Durham, 7/12/2010 17:01
Yes there is! Educate yourself THEN comment….
– marie, athens, 7/12/2010 7:54

Is there anything more marvelous than a snotty remark from someone who is wrong? And again, its’?

Not sure why you’ve been red arrowed when it’s totally true. ‘Asian talk’ such as “innit” and “bro” has become part of the day-to-day language.
Get on a bus in London and I doubt you’ll hear a single English voice.
Act fast now and cut immigration – if you go in a shop and hear them speaking in foreign remind them what country they live in!!!

My dear British National Party friend, bro is American talk, and we’ll thank you to cite us appropriately. Also, “speaking in foreign”? C’mon.

How about the very latest, infuriating beauty? Question: ‘Have you got a girl-friend?’
Answer: ‘Yes I do’. I long to witness such an exchange on TV and hear the interviewer ask ‘Yes, you do what?’ The answer will, of course, be ‘Yes, I do have a girl-friend’. The learned interviewer will then humiliate the ignoramus – for the benefit of all – with ‘Do you mean “Yes, I have”?

If you’ll excuse some longer commentary, no, the interviewee doesn’t mean that. The interviewee is using verb phrase ellipsis. VP ellipsis is where a verb phrase would be repeated but is instead left out or replaced with an appropriate auxiliary. The auxiliary is based on the tense of the VP being replaced, so you’d use do in the present tense, will in the future, did in the past, and so on. This kind of ellipsis replaces the verb and its objects. If the verb isn’t replaced, then the objects have to stick around, too*. In response to “Did you eat the fish yet?” one can say “Yes, I did” or “Yes, I ate it”, but “Yes, I ate” is distinctly strange to say here. So too with the “Have you got a girlfriend?” question; “Yes, I do” or “Yes, I have a girlfriend”, or even “Yes, I have one” would be standard. But “Yes, I have” would only be a standard response if the question were “Have you had a girlfriend?”.

It is noticible how poor grammar is now quite normal amongst the younger generations. You only have to look at the standard from the articles written on here & other media. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are graduates they are employing. Also the media has made a big effort to move away from those who speak the queens english or proper english. Instead they push regional accents where possible. Where they have their own dialect. Like some say “us” instead of “me”. Unless children are avid book readers, they will pick up poor grammar from the internet, media etc. The problem is we have let standards slip. I know a few students who are wanting to go into teaching, because it is so much easier to get on courses. I would not want them teaching my children, they seem,undisciplined ignorant of history & basic facts. Have been brought up on a shallow celeb culture. They have poor grammar & would be passing this on to future pupils. We need to stop the cycle of this now.

If you’re serious in your concerns about bad grammar on the Internet, might I suggest you not post anymore?

*: In some cases you can elide only the object, but these are generally in cases where the verb is being specifically focused on, i.e., He didn’t think I saw it, but I saw. They also, at least to me, sound generally awkward unless they are delivered angrily, in which case grammatical awkwardness is the least of one’s concerns.

The World Cup’s over now, but there’s a little point that’s keeps gnawing at me. I followed the World Cup primarily through Yahoo!’s sports site (previously mentioned for its poor choices in headline truncation), and I have to admit that despite my general disdain for comments on sports sites, I found myself actually following theirs. Not, of course, because the comments offered any insights, but rather out of a worrisome inability to stop looking at them. They were mini-Medusas, turning my brain to stone each time I looked upon their inane blabberings and tried to figure out why the commenter thought I needed to hear their thoughts. And worse, they had a siren’s song, a cer—n undeniable beauty in their weird blend of nationalism, chauvinism, mockery, pop culture references, and insanity that kept me unable to turn away.

Curious about the dashes in cer—n? Well, so am I. Yahoo!’s commenting software has an apparently very strange censorship module in it. Like a standard censorship module, it replaces words it finds offensive with dashes. In order to deter the more clever vulgarians, it also replaces dirty words hidden within other words. This is why glasses is censored into gl— in the following comment:

The Refs need gl---.

That’s a little out of the ordinary; in my experience, most automatic-censoring software checks against a dictionary, and lets words whose only fault is containing an obscene word go through untouched. This isn’t a hard feature to program in, so I am led to believe that Yahoo! consciously decided to omit it. Maybe they were having trouble with commenters using minced oaths like “We’re going to kick your glasses!” and they decided to remove even within-word obscenities to foil them. That would also explain this comment:

kudos in major quan---ies

I’m going to go out on a limb and suppose that the commenter wished to offer major quantities of kudos, which would of course be censored by a censor that seeks out vulgarities lurking within words. Nothing too weird there. But then I found these comments:

technolo---

Apparently FIFA president Sepp Blatter isn’t the only one against technology; Yahoo!’s censor is adamant that the word not be reproduced in full. For some reason, the string gy is marked as obscene. The only explanation I can come up with for that is that the censor wanted to prevent brainiacs slipping gay by the censor by omitting its vowel. That’s an implausible explanation, though, especially since I’ve seen gay come through uncensored in other comments.

Now what about the censorship I engaged in in the opening paragraph, cer—n? Why would I do something so silly? Well, check out these comments:

Based on context, surely the censored words in the comments above are meant to be Captain, certain, and entertaining, which suggests that the Yahoo! censor believes tai to be a vulgarity.*

I was worried that my lexicon of vulgarities had fallen out of date, which would ruin the street cred that I have so precisely cultivated, so I rushed onto Urban Dictionary to find out what made tai censorable. Strangely, there was only one obscene definition for tai on Urban Dictionary. But I don’t think that it has anywhere near the general appeal to need censoring; it was the eighth definition listed on Urban Dictionary, buried under references to the band The Academy Is… and a claims that folks with the name Tai are “unusually fly”, “elite, perfect, cool guy in planet”, and “a total badass”. I tried looking on Google, but struck out there as well, with searches for “tai obscene” and “tai vulgarity” not returning anything useful.**

Does anyone have any idea what’s going on here? Have I offended you by saying gy and tai all willy-nilly? If so, please accept my heartfelt apolo—.


*: Perhaps, you’re thinking, it’s not tai that’s obscene but rather ta or tain, which are also in all three words. Judging from the gl— and quan—ies examples, though, it appears that all and only the obscene letters are dashed out.

**: I was shocked to find out you could search for any phrase with “obscene” in it and not get a single porn site. I found that especially surprising with “Tai” given that Kobe Tai was a famous pornographic actress in the late 90s.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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