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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.
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.”
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.
On occasion, I look up at the tagline of this blog (“Prescriptivism Must Die”) and wonder if perhaps I’m being too harsh. But then I read something like Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Disagreeable English, and realize that the tagline is, if anything, understating the case.
Fiske seems to believe he is in some sort of competition for the title of King Prescriptivist, and his book seems to be his equivalent of the Eveningwear Competition. His book flaunts everything that is wrong with prescriptivism: ad hominem attacks, unresearched prescriptions, illogic, wild invective against those who disagree with him. You might remember his quote that the to no end idiom, which many of you well-educated readers use, is a “bastardization born of mishearing”, when — of course — he presented no evidence for this claim.
In his books, Fiske is a bully who asserts that disagreeing with him or making a simple usage error is evidence of poor mental faculties. As it is with anyone who argues by bluster and bluff, proving Fiske wrong is an exercise in futility. It’s like nailing jelly to the wall; you can do it, sure, but he’s just going to ignore the nail of evidence and continue his descent to the floor of absurdity. It is a complete and utter waste of time. That said, I haven’t much of a stomach for bullies, and have some time to waste.
Let’s start with an example of a bald assertion made without any effort made to back it up. Check out this weaselly use of the passive: “Though both words are in common use, normality is considered preferable to normalcy.” Who considers normality preferable, exactly? Certainly not The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (which, by the way, is being sold through Fiske’s website), in which it is written that “Normalcy and normality stand side by side in AmE [American English] as legitimate alternatives.” This sort of unsourced claim is exactly why everyone’s always up in arms about the passive voice. This is “mistakes were made” territory.
Most of the book consists of these unjustified ipse dixit proclamations. I can see why; when Fiske does offer justifications, he often contradicts himself. Here’s a line from page 284: “Preventive is preferable to preventative because it has one fewer syllable.” Hey, look, I’m fine with that. Speaking as a light dyslexic, I am all too willing to accept shorter words; there’s less for me to transpose. But a mere 12 pages earlier in the book, Fiske talks about perquisite, which he sneers is “commonly called a perk by the ever-monosyllabic, ever-hasty everyman”. So is conciseness the sign of an efficient mind or a hasty mind? We are left to wonder.
And then he does the same thing again when talking about one of the only: “Only does not mean two or more; it means one, sole, alone. One of the only then is altogether nonsensical—and further evidence that people scarcely know what their words mean.” This is quite incorrect, and there are so many ways to show it — in fact, I did so in a previous post. One could cite the 20-odd pre-1800 usages of the phrase “one of the only” in Google Books, or perhaps the 634 pre-1800 usages of the phrase “the only two“, which surely would be ruled out if only could not possibly refer to two or more objects. One could even go back a bit farther and point out the Oxford English Dictionary’s citation of a plural usage of only in Pecock’s Repressor, printed around 1450. Yes, yes, all of these would be well and good, and would serve to illustrate that there is no historical injunction against only modifying a plural noun. But the particular usages I choose to cite in defense of one of the only are a bit more modern:
(1) “We have words aplenty that mean to annoy; the only other words that mean to aggravate are worsen and exacerbate.”
(2) “[…] the only people inclined to use & in place of and […]” [Italics author’s, boldface mine.]
These usages are from pages 30 and 43 of The Dictionary of Disagreeable English, by Robert Hartwell Fiske. Clearly, Fiske himself scarcely knows what only means, since his stated definition doesn’t match his observed usage of plural only. So if (1) and (2) are fine, why would Fiske object to saying that “worsen is one of the only words that mean to aggravate,” or that “the new copywriter is one of the only people inclined to use &”? It’s beyond me.
All right, enough of that. So Fiske occasionally contradicts himself. Who doesn’t? So Fiske sometimes doesn’t support his beliefs. Is it fair to excoriate someone for that? In most cases I’d say no. But Fiske is a bully, one who launches vicious ad hominem attacks against the intelligence of other writers. For instance, when Burt Sugar, a boxing writer for the Los Angeles Times decided to get a bit cute, writing of an out-of-shape boxer that he “has gone north–as in north of 250 pounds,” Fiske responded that “Mr. Sugar, like some of the boxers he writes about, has apparently had his ear deformed, his brains addled.” After all, he’s used north of, which Fiske describes as “[i]diotic for more than.” Never mind that I found this usage to actually be rather clever, with its implication that the boxer had metaphorically gone on vacation. Fiske clearly did not, and that makes Sugar an idiot.
Another example: Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, is apparently a fool. After all, he used the wrong tense in this sentence: “If I would have been a publishing house, I would’ve eagerly taken David’s book.” Yeah, it’s not right, but it doesn’t reveal any glaring intellectual deficit, right? Wrong! Fiske writes “Mr. Lowry’s use of would have exposes an inability to reason well—as does his imagining he might conceivably have been a publishing house.” Yep, I’m sure that Lowry was really imagining that.
So if I may be excused for the well-worn phrase, Fiske is really a pot calling a kettle black. If these writers have addled brains and an inability to reason, then one can scarcely imagine what Fiske has.
One last point, and perhaps the most frustrating one, is that on rare occasions Fiske shows admirable lucidity. For instance, he admonishes one questioner that “[p]erhaps you have trouble understanding why fixing to is improper because—dislike it though you may—it is not improper; it is, as you say, Southern.” Oh, if only that reasonable Robert Hartwell Fiske could sit down and talk to the Fiske who spazzes over Sugar’s north of, or the one who baldly asserts that normalcy is to be avoided. Maybe then we would have been spared Fiske’s disagreeable complaints. But instead, we are treated to the vitriol of a crank who views any error, whether large or small, as incontrovertible evidence of the end of English.
The prescriptivists are on my last nerve. Some of them really believe that there is something wrong with this sentence:
(1) One of the only things I liked about living in Ottawa was the strong film community.
Reasonable readers, can you find the error in (1)? The construction that “doesn’t convey any information”, the one that Richard Lederer calls a “strange and illogical expression”, the one Robert Hartwell Fiske cites as “further evidence that people scarcely know what their words mean”? Give up? It’s one of the only!
Oh, you didn’t find that to be illogical? You thought you got some information out of those words? Well then, congratulations; you’re a normal speaker of English. Honestly, I couldn’t see what could the problem with one of the only possibly be. Well, let’s look at Lederer’s argument against it:
“This strange and illogical expression began showing up a few years ago, and English took a step backward when it did. The expression has been defended on the basis that it is no worse than only two, because only means ‘one’ and only two is oxymoronic. A specious argument! It’s like saying that robbing a bank is okay because it’s no worse than robbing a jewelry store. Moreover, only in the sense of ‘only two’ does not mean ‘one’; it means ‘no more than.’ There is no meaning of only that fits with one of the only.“
Well, that’s a kick in the gut of the facts — three kicks, in fact. Kick the first is the claim that one of the only started showing up a few years ago. Google Books reports it in two books around 1770, in The Dramatic Censor and The Sale of Authors, and reports hundreds of uses throughout the nineteenth century. It’s more than a few years old, that’s for sure.
Kick the second is the idea that any reasonable person defends one of the only by noting that only two is oxymoronic. I sure don’t, and I don’t understand who would. There is nothing oxymoronic, nothing contradictory about the construction. Only two is completely clear, comprehensible, standard, and logical — hundreds of pre-1800 usages of only two in Google Books attest to this.
Kick the third is Lederer’s definition of only. Only two does not mean “no more than two” in standard usage. If it meant “no more than two”, then (2) would be a totally acceptable sentence.
(2) *The cyclops has only two eyes.
With Lederer’s definition (2) is fine, because a cyclops has only one eye, and one is no more than two. But a quick poll of the only two people in the apartment at the moment revealed that (2) is utterly unacceptable; clearly Lederer’s definition is insufficient. The real definition of only in only two is something along the lines of “exactly”, but with the crucial additional implicature that this is a smaller number than expected. Violating this implicature makes a sentence sound weird, as with (3b):
(3a) I was sad when only two people showed up at my cats’ wedding.
(3b) #I was sad when only one thousand people showed up at my cats’ wedding.
Now, the fact that one gets this implicature, that only two sounds so much better than only one thousand, ought to suggest that there is logic underlying the construction. This, coupled with Lederer’s crummy definition of only, should lead a reader to be skeptical of his claim that no meaning of only can fit in one of the only. I am curious as to what Lederer thinks the definitions of only are.
So what does one of the only mean? What happens if we follow one critic’s request to “parse it if you will, and see what you get”? Let’s look at the example in (1). The only things I liked about living in Ottawa is a noun phrase, identifying the set of things the speaker liked about living in Ottawa, noting that this set is the complete set, and implying that it’s an awfully small set. That’s what the quantifier only means, that’s what it’s meant for hundreds of years. One of modifies a noun phrase, selecting one member of that set. The two combined, as they are in (1), pick out a single member of the set of all things the speaker liked about living in Ottawa. So what exactly were we supposed to see when we parsed this? That it works? I’m fine with that.
There’re a lot more arguments that one of the only makes sense, and Jan Freeman has a wonderful column with a few of them. Notably, Freeman points out that one of the only is attested cross-linguistically, further destroying the notion that one of the only is somehow illogical. So in the end, I have to ask this of the prescriptivists: Do you really have nothing better to do in your lives than to ignore the well-known meanings of words so that you get to call other people stupid? Are you really unable to think of a better pastime than claiming that a reasonable, well-worn construction is illogical and incomprehensible? Are you really so committed to those goals that you’re unwilling to comprehend an easily comprehensible construction?
Or as I screamed into my computer after reading this junk: Why are you spending more effort trying to misunderstand someone than trying to understand them?
Summary: Prescriptivists insistently grouse that people don’t think enough when they write, but prescriptivists seem just as likely not to think when writing. Case in point: the arguments against one of the only are positively absurd, based off of a wanton misinterpretation of what only means, and completely independent of historical usage in English and other languages. Of course one of the only is fine, a fact that has been known since 1770.