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The Word

Almost unique

What's wrong with 'one of the only'?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
March 23, 2008

AS THE DISTRICT of Columbia's gun ban squared off against the Second Amendment last week, Georgetown University constitutional scholar Randy Barnett was widely quoted on the momentousness of the event: "This may be one of the only cases in our lifetime when the Supreme Court is going to be interpreting . . . an important provision of the Constitution unencumbered by precedent."

Objection! e-mailed reader Sue Bass of Belmont. "One of the only cases" doesn't make sense, she protested; it should logically be "one of the few."

Several contemporary usage writers endorse her view. Paul Brians, in "Common Errors in English Usage," notes that only is rooted in one, and thus ought to remain singular. "The correct expression is 'one of the few,' " he says.

Barbara Wallraff, in "Your Own Words," agrees. Only means "alone in kind or class; sole," her dictionary says. And you wouldn't say "one of the sole Muslim states."

Richard Lederer, in "Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay," also shuns one of the only: "This strange and illogical expression began showing up a few years ago," he writes, "and English took a step backward when it did."

But one of the only has its defenders. James Kilpatrick, in "Fine Print," points out that it is no less logical than one of the best or one of the most talented. "The best advice I can offer is to shake your head and get on with what you are writing," he concludes.

Earlier usage gurus are silent on the topic, though there's some indirect evidence of their attitude. For instance, the critic Edmund Wilson, reviewing a1940s potboiler, observed that "one of the only attempts at a literary heightening of effect is the substitution for the simple 'said' of other, more pretentious verbs" like "shrilled" and "barked."

Usage maven Sir Ernest Gowers liked this quote enough - despite its use of "one of the only" - that he included it in his 1965 edition of Fowler's "Modern English Usage," as a comment on "said."

How long has this been going on? A Google Books search dates one of the only to the 1770s, when a traveler reported that "business, and making money, is one of the only employments" of Rotterdam. But only was already losing its singularity. The 1989 Oxford English Dictionary gave the sense "one (or, by extension, two or more), of which there exist no more . . . of the kind," and quoted Sir Philip Sidney, in the 16th century, using "the only two."

This expansive sense of "only" is not just an Anglo-Saxon aberration. In "Swann's Way," Proust's narrator says that a certain day was "one of the only" ("un des seuls") on which he was not unhappy. In German, according to University of Wisconsin professor Joseph Salmons, one of the only (eine der einzigen, etc.) is entirely OK.

Multilinguist Steve Dodson, at the blog Language Hat, said one of the only is common in Russian and in Spanish (un de los únicos). Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at UC Berkeley, sent some examples in Italian (along with a caution from an Italian linguist who calls the usage illogical).

And as Bill Walsh argues at Blogslot, his editing blog, one of the only makes its own kind of sense. "Webster's New World defines only as 'alone of its or their kind,' and nobody objects to 'only two people.' . . . If 'only two people' have done something, wouldn't one of those people be one of only two people, or one of the only people, who have done it?"

Once we had the only two, in other words, we were on the slippery slope to one of the only. And in everyday, unedited English, we prefer it to one of the few by a Google hit ratio of 3 to 1. Nobody has to use it, but everyone speaking English can expect to hear it. After two and a half centuries, we should be getting used to it.

. . .

IT'S A #$%@&!! ADVERB: The Supreme Court will also be taking up the matter of broadcast obscenity, with Bono as poster child for the case. It was the U2 singer who, declaring that his 2003 Golden Globe award was "[expletive] brilliant," launched the debate on "fleeting expletives."

So it's time to remind ourselves not to repeat the FCC's grammatical goof. In its original ruling on Bono, the agency said he had used the F-word "as an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation."

An adjective? Nope. In "you bleeping idiot," bleeping is an adjective. But in "this is bleeping brilliant," it modifies an adjective, so according to standard high-school grammar, it has to be an adverb.

Chief Justice John Roberts is said to take pride in his grammatical chops; we'll be watching his decision for a clarifying footnote on the parts of speech, obscene or otherwise.

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