Are you one of the only people bothered by this?

A while back, a fellow editor encountered an instance where someone “pointed out” that one of the only doesn’t make sense and should be one of the few.

Well, geez, who knew it didn’t make sense? I’ve always understood it. It’s a well-established idiom. But some people find it irksome: to them, only can only mean “one” – they may have that as a feature of their personal version of English, but likely they learned it from someone else “pointing it out” – and so for them one of the only is not just wrong but annoying (as “errors” you just learned can seem to be: a reaction that has much more to do with in-group and out-group than with clarity or effective communication).

What there really is here is a failure of analysis. The same sort of analysis leads some people to say anyways is illogical, when in fact the s isn’t a plural, it’s a survival of the genitive. In the case of one of the only, only means “without anything else.” You can say “there are only three people I know who can do this” and it’s not wrong. To say it must mean “one” flies in the face of established usage.

The difference, therefore, is that one of the few focuses on small quantity, while one of the only focuses on limitation. That’s a subtle difference in focus worth preserving.

So, for instance, a waitress at brunch said to me not long ago “This is one of the only new menu items we have.” My wife and I understood it. And the effect would have been different if she had said “one of the few new menu items” or “one of a few new menu items.”

Now, evidently there are some people who do not have this usage in their repertoire, and are resistant to adding it. This would be one of the factors that ensure many varieties of English usage. If you use one of the only you need to be aware that some people may respond adversely to it.

But the argument often made for replacing one of the only with one of the few, that it’s imprecise, is actually holding that it’s more precise to conflate two senses – one focusing on small numbers, the other on limitation and exclusivity – in one form, and to require every expression to focus not on the limitation and exclusivity but on the small number. That seems to me a little bit like legislating the value of pi to be 22/7 for the sake of precision.

Remember: the moment someone starts in on a common word or expression and says it’s not logical, reach for your references and see what bit of linguistic history or understanding the person is overlooking. Also ask yourself exactly when English became a logical and consistent language. (Hint: it never did.)

40 responses to “Are you one of the only people bothered by this?

  1. Excellent post, though I do have one quibble: the problem isn’t that English is illogical, but rather that the logic of English often does not match up with the purported logic of sticklers. “One of the only” is illogical if you take it as axiomatic that “only” means “one”; it’s perfectly logical if, as you say, it limits or excludes rather than pointing out numbers.

    Gabe Doyle had an excellent post on axioms and language a little while back.

    • Great post from Motivated Grammar – thanks!

      It’s true that English isn’t inevitably illogical, and that things that seem illogical often have a perfectly reasonable logic that is misunderstood. On the other hand, sometimes it’s exquisitely difficult to find a defensible logic in a given construction – idioms are wonderful things.

      And, as Gabe points out so ably, it sure isn’t math… It’s not formal logic, either.

      • Like I said, a minor quibble. The important point, I think, is that English frequently does not follow the logic that sticklers claim it does. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    • ESL here. As an observation, for me, the only-construct causes a pause of sorts, a flow disruption equivalent to a dozen words or so in writing, or a few spoken words. I assume this is due to the analogous construction being very odd in my own language, on par with “tidying down”, minus the fun; also, the few-construct is a conditioned expectation if you’re not used to only occuring in its place.

  2. The tongue spoken by the majority of white North Americans should now be called American, rather than English.

    • I assure you, there are many dialects of American English, and the various dialects of Canadian English are identical to none of them. That said, both have significant differences with the various varieties of British English and other varieties of English. English, like any widely spoken language, is really a language system, with some versions so divergent as to be mutually unintelligible. So naturally we can expect some difference in rules. But even the standard forms – the kinds editors tend to enforce for formal documents – have their variations.

  3. Well, I am bothered by it, initially because I have never heard anyone say ‘one of the only people’ in this far land the other side of the ocean. I tried to reason myself into accepting the usage as a valid neologism; but I could still feel mental gears grinding.

    So I tried to work out why, and realised that ‘only’ is a twofold word. It can be an adjective or an adverb. As an adjective, it implies singleness: ‘an only child’, ‘the only way’.

    As an adverb, it does not necessarily imply singularity. It means ‘no more than’, ‘nothing other than’: ‘Only three people know this.’ If you say ‘The only three people who know’, you are using it an an adverb. If you say ‘One of only three people who know, it’s still an adverb.

    But if you say ‘One of the only people who know’, you force ‘only’ into a position where it has to stand as an adjective, and it assumes its implication of singularity — which is negated by the context.

    I don’t like referring to dictionaries as a way of proving points: they are supposed to describe, not prescribe. But after I had had these thoughts I consulted the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, and it supports my instinct. There are two separate entries for ‘only’. The first gives it as an adjective and gives definitions and examples that imply singulalrity, such as ‘Reason is my only guide’, ‘You’re the only person I can tell.’ The second is for the adverb, and includes the senses in which it can apply to more than one person or thing, such as ‘Since he had only two suitcases …’. (The second definition includes its use as a conjunction or preposition: ‘I’d come with you, only I’m tied up.’)

    • What we have here is definitely a dialectal difference. You have learned a version in which “the only” does not follow “one of”, and from that you maintain it can only mean “the one”. That limitation does not exist in every version of English, but the broader use is also not a neologism. One can readily find many uses through history of “the only” modifying a plural and thus meaning “the exclusive set” rather than “the unique individual”, thereby giving the lie to the Shorter Oxford. Here are some instances of “the only” modifying a plural:

      “These spiritual gems were the only ones of any magnitude that Isabel possessed” —Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
      “books of this kind were almost the only ones with which he was unacquainted” —Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
      “Stupid men are the only ones worth knowing after all.” —Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
      “the only persons, who in equity ought to suffer, are the only persons who are to be saved harmless” —Reflections on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke
      “Books, you know, are the only things I am a coxcomb in.” —The School for Scandal, Richard Brinsley Sheridan
      “riches, and the signs of riches, were almost the only things really respected” —Autobiography, John Stuart Mill

      Now, I am tempted to say that as long as “the only” meaning “the exclusive set” is acceptable, “one of the only” is acceptable; interestingly, however, “one of the only” is harder to find in literature, which suggests that for many of these writers it indicates a limitation that also creates an indivisible group. But there is no difficulty in finding highly literate people who find “one of the only” quite acceptable (well, there may be in your neighbourhood, but not in mine), and it is a reasonable extension from the usage “the only ones” or “the only people”.

      Nor is it some North Americanism. Search The Times for “one of the only” and you will get 377 results from the last decade (including 19 uses of “one of the only people”). The Telegraph gives similar results. I get 213 hits for “one of the only” (exact phrase) in the Hansard of the British Parliament.

      As mentioned, those using it should be aware that there are those who will not like it. But there is no reasonable case to be made for those who find it acceptable to stop using it, unless of course they are speaking to someone who will have a problem with it.

      • sesquiotic,

        Your examples do not prove that the Shorter Oxford is wrong, but rather than you are failing to capture the issue with the sentence in question. Let me illustrate my point.

        Your first example:
        “These spiritual gems were the only ones of any magnitude that Isabel possessed” —Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
        only is followed by a qualifying and limiting unit: “ones of any magnitude”

        Your second example:
        “books of this kind were almost the only ones with which he was unacquainted” —Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
        only is again followed by a qualifying and limiting quantity: “ones with which he was unacquainted.

        All examples you list contain this form.

        “One of the only people” fails to meet the criteria. It would however fit your examples if you added the word few, as in “One of the only few people”.

        “Only” is perhaps not the item in question here, as much as the fact that it follows “One of”. “One of” implies the item that follows belongs to a finite group of… whatevers. Therefore “Only” must be a part of the qualifying attributes of the list that is being identified.

        To reference the title of this article as an example, “Only people” is not a valid group, therefore you cannot use “One of” in front of it.

      • This is a reply to Ignavo, below, but WordPress doesn’t allow fourth-level replies, it seems.

        The form “one of the only people bothered by this” (which is a shortened version of “one of the only people who are bothered by this”) does in fact match the examples given; indeed, it matches quite exactly the next two examples after the ones you mention, but it also matches the ones you mention. Here’s how:

        First, we see in all of these examples that “only” is an adjective, which was the point I was making. We see that because it is “the only [noun]” and that is a position for a modifier to the noun phrase, and certainly not for an adverb. Second, the full structure of the noun phrase in nearly every case is “the only [noun] [relative clause describing noun]”:

        “the only [ones] [with which he was unacquainted]”
        “the only [ones] [(that are) worth knowing after all]”
        “the only [persons] [who are to be saved harmless]”
        “the only [things] [(that) I am a coxcomb in]”
        “the only [things] [(that were) really respected]”

        So, too, we have

        “the only [people] [(who are) bothered by this]”

        On the other hand, “One of the only few people” is a sentence that really would not pass muster practically anywhere. I defy any commenter here to say they would not find it pleonastic. It’s strikingly unidiomatic.

        As well, “one of” does not assert belonging to a finite group. It asserts belonging to any group. “There are infinite examples to prove the statement false, and this is one of them.” And it happens that when we use “the only [plural noun]” we are establishing a set.

        Another thing to remember about dictionaries is that they are not legislation – and they do not agree altogether with one another either. They are attempts at description, and they are always subject to certain constraints. For example, the Shorter Oxford is constrained to be, well, shorter.

        Incidentally, there is no received canon of literature handed down from the Almighty. I presented examples from well-known authors as included in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the usage in question is well established among many excellent, highly educated, and well-respected persons who happen to be less famous. On the other hand, it is objected to mainly by persons who have yet to make a meaningful contribution to literature or discourse and who often produce quite painful sentences in support of their position. Let’s be scientific about this: the hypothesis “‘one of the only X’ is ungrammatical” does not match the available data from a large set of users who are highly proficient in English. Now, as I point out in the original post, there are different versions of English, and every speaker has some differences of experience and idea. There are people who can’t abide this usage, and no one is forcing them to use it. But when they attempt to tell others that they are wrong to use it, they go badly off the rails.

    • Thank you! I’ve been googling to work out why it bothers me so much and hadn’t noticed the adjective / adverb thing.

  4. “Are you one of the only team to have two NBA threepeats in the 1990s?”

    That sounds perfect to me, team being a collective of individuals. Perhaps your beef isn’t with “only” but with the use of “people” in this collective sense.

    • That’s tricky, because both ‘people’ and ‘team’ are collective nouns and can be treated as singular or plural. But I would say that ‘team’ here is used definitely in its singular sense: it would expand to ‘Are you one of the only team that has had two …?’ So it couldn’t be disapproved of by the most rigorous of pedants. On the other hand, ‘people’ is usually considered plural, and its use in the singular to mean a race or nation is relatively uncommon.

  5. The only real usefulness of the phrase in question is, for me, to identify a lazy, imprecise speaker.
    The server could say: “This is among three new items on our menu,” and everyone knows exactly what is meant and would agree on that meaning.
    Some may think they know what “one of the only” means, but you won’t find meaningful consistency. It’s like telling people you had a long walk to school as a child versus telling people you walked ten miles each way from kindergarten through sixth grade.
    Thanks for the forum to rant. I’d just heard another broadcast journalist use what I’ve come to loathe as a meaningless phrase and was delighted to find someone trying to defend it online. I read the essay with an open mind, but it just doesn’t hold water.
    It’s true our language is a living language, but sometimes tumors need to be removed.

  6. Ben Yagoda has some other interesting thoughts on use of only and its placement at . I like this: “As is often the case, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (read from my iPhone) has words of wisdom, observing, ‘The placement of only in a sentence has been a source of studious commentary since the 18th century, most of it intended to prove by force of argument that prevailing standard use is wrong.’”

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  9. You can explain it away all you like, but those who use it have tin ears. And it’s the “the” that savages the fleshly ear; I have no problem with “one of only ten”.
    It seems to me to have spread virally in the last two decades or so…didn’t think it was heard 40 or 50 years ago. Then I found it in Edmund Wilson’s (!) “Memoirs of Hecate County”, from the 1940’s, in the words of the narrator, who is apparently a well educated critic and man of letters. But an unreliable narrator, for me now…

    • It’s amusing how many people try to present mental limitation as a sign of superiority. You are unable to grasp it, so you declare flatly without support that people who use it have a tin ear. That’s not an argument, it’s an assertion, and with it you assert that you’re going to doggedly ignore clear reasoning and ample evidence from educated speakers. You have taken out membership in the linguistic flat-earth society.

      Really, all those highly literate people have tin ears, and you, o special you, do not? Really, a professional English language expert, one of the most respected members of the Editors’ Association of Canada in matters of grammar and usage, a trained authority who has made a very good living correcting, teaching, and explaining English for more than a decade and a half, who has aced tests of grammar and vocabulary, who has read so much and so widely and written so much, has a tin ear? And all the other people who use this construction have tin ears? Just because it’s outside of your personal usage? No.

      Start with this. Is this sentence grammatically acceptable?

      The only people who are bothered by this are peevish. [A perfectly acceptable sentence, supported by numerous citations.]

      Are you one of them? [Also acceptable, obviously.]

      [Extension:] Are you one of the only people who are bothered by this?

      [Condensation:] Are you one of the only people bothered by this?


      A guess as to what may be going on in the minds of some people who object: They may be thinking of it not as [One of {the only people [who are bothered by this]}] but as [One of {the only people} {who is bothered by this}]. That would not be idiomatic. But that is not what is going on here.

      As I said, it’s understandable that for some people it’s not a feature of their idiolect. But it’s not excusable for those people to say that all the others are wrong. That’s simply juvenile. Rather than obdurately refusing instruction, stop talking and learn. And if you will not learn, then at least stop talking. You lack authority. Mental limitation is not a sign of superiority. It is a sign of limitation.

  10. It sounds like “only” has no meaning: to the people who accept the use “One of the only menu items” (it sounds like nails scratching the chalk board to me) is the same as “One of the menu items…” I would go for short and clear communications; drop the “only.”

  11. After pointing out correctly that ‘only’ in this construct is about limitation rather than quantity, you give the example of the waitress who said:

    “This is one of the only new menu items we have.”

    Note carefully that her statement is true whether just that one menu item was new, or the whole menu was new (or any combination in between). Your item is still ‘one of the only’. So what is the waitress saying?

    If (as seems most likely) she is trying to emphasise that just a few items on the menu have changed, she is saying it incorrectly, by your own analysis – her statement asserts nothing about quantity other than that there is at least one new item.

    Alternatively, the waitress fully appreciates that ‘only’ means limitation, but now what is she saying?. As far as I can tell, it would be in the nature of one of the following two broad possibilities:

    * Stating that ‘this item is new on the menu’, or similar, but adding extra words which don’t add anything worthwhile, and furthermore carry a very high risk that the listener will understand it to mean ‘this is one of the few new items on the menu’.
    * Attempting to mislead you, by (for example) leading you to buy the bagel by saying its new on the menu, and assuming that you will (incorrectly) assume its one of the *few* new items, when in fact the whole menu is new.

    So in summary, the use of ‘only’ here is either simply incorrect, simply useless, or is being used to deceive. Take your pick!

    • Your first mistake is in thinking this is some sort of formal logic puzzle. It’s not. It’s natural human communication; she says it, and you understand it. If your analysis leads you to an interpretation of it that is at odds with what you – and other native users of the language – automatically understand, your analysis is faulty. What people say that is understood clearly is a natural phenomenon and a key to the way our brains work on the automatic level. To say something “really means” something other than what was intended and understood is like saying that the snow on your front lawn is not really there because snow can’t have fallen because its atmospheric behaviour is outside what you consider legitimately falling. And yet there it is; get shovelling. This is not formal logic, where you start with a predefined set of conditions and can constrain things to be acceptable only within them; this is science, where you have a natural phenomenon, and you try to describe it, and if your description fails to predict the real result, you adjust your description rather than saying the result didn’t happen.

      Beyond that, however, your statement that “her statement is true whether just that one menu item was new, or the whole menu was new” is also false in relation to my analysis because limitation naturally excludes the possibility that the entire menu is new; “all” is not a limited amount, it is the entire amount (if you wish to say “the limit could be set at 100%” you are using a nonstandard and rather useless sense of “limited”). Limitation here (as in common English) means paucity. She is expressing that a comparatively small subset of the menu is new, although she does not specify the exact size of the subset. Your summary statement at the end is at odds with the clear, unambiguous data. I give you facts; you make a faulty analysis and say that the facts as presented are not facts and imply that I am a fool or liar. Your conclusion is without merit; the reality is that you are too busy with your attempts to tidy the world into your excessively limited analysis to realize the limits of your analysis.

      Am I saying that the way she said it is the best or clearest or most concise way to say it? No, that is a separate debate. But the rules of the language are set by usage, not by people who sit around and decide that everyone is using it wrong. The idea that “one of the only” cannot mean what people use it to mean is intellectual onanism, a waste of time and a frankly obnoxious one at that; to maintain such an idea simply means you don’t understand what’s going on. That’s not a virtue.

      If you really wish to try to analyze language, you have to start with the fact that person A has said it and person B has understood it as person A has intended it, and that therefore – however it worked – it worked. If your analysis leads you conclude that it did not work or could not work, you need to redo your analysis. You have become like the biologists who insisted that the platypus could not exist because it did not fit within their classifications.

  12. I have no problem when people use the expression, both because it’s an established idiom, and because it’s perfectly understandable. I have no problem with people saying they hate it too, because that’s how they process language. This belief seems well established: there’s a non-trivial set of people who regard this particular formation as an error. When someone uses the expression they are expressing belief that it’s part of the language; when someone expresses a peeve about it, they are expressing a contrary belief. These beliefs seem perfectly symmetrical to me, and we should be able to observe these beliefs equivalently. So if it’s fine to accept an expression on the basis of its use and acceptance among a particular group, it should be fine to accept the rejection of that expression. We don’t judge the reasoning or factual accuracy or rationales that we might hear, we just accept the usage because it is used and accepted. And similarly, it’s possible to accept the rejection of the expression along similar lines: the reasoning doesn’t matter.

    Where I disagree with the latter group is in the _labeling_. They call it a universal error, when it’s only an error in terms of the language as they speak/write/understand it. But I think when most people use and talk about the language they are talking about the language as they understand it, as they believe how it works. For the complainers, it’s an absolute error because their personal belief of how the language works is absolute. If you view their complaint in that light, it is perfectly symmetrical with someone else’s view that the expression is perfectly fine to use. If the complainer has no standing to stop others from using or accepting the expression, the “metacomplainer” has no standing to stop the complainer from complaining. Just as the complainer can’t use reasoning to invalidate the language choices that are used and accepted within a particular group, the metacomplainer can’t use reasoning to invalidate the complaints.

    How about this: The metacomplainer can only say “the expression is used and accepted within a group of people who have the right to use and accept it, and your complaints are not going to stop that.” Any attempt to prove the complainer wrong on the basis of reasoning will be no more successful than the complainer’s attempt to prove the expression to be an error on a logical basis.

  13. This is a reply to sesquiotic’s last post above)

    If the expression were truly idiomatic for everyone, this post would not exist, and I would not have come to it looking for answers. There would be nothing to say. There would be no argument, and we would all be happily using the expression unanalysed, as a transparent, indivisible whole.

    But the fact is that a lot of people have big troubles with it, so screaming in ten different ways that we *must* regard it as idiomatic is unhelpful. As far as I know, idiomatic expressions are about fluid, easy communication between native speakers. Some people apparently do regard this as an idiom, but its not in my repertoire, and judging from my 50 odd years of experience as an English speaker, neither is it common. Which of us then is wishing the world were otherwise that as it is? You say I must start with the *fact* that the communication ‘just works’ and proceed from there. I am saying that, for many of us, this is clearly *not* a case where the communication ‘just works’. Which of us is starting from empirical evidence, and which insisting that the world meets their expectations?

    Further, it seems intellectually dishonest to analyse the expression yourself when it suits your purpose, and then scream ‘idiomatic’ when someone has the temerity to follow the analysis that you began through to a conclusion of their own. How much analysis is just enough? Why, when its just enough to prove my point! How much is clearly too much? Why, when it is used to prove a different point of course!

    I my analysis, I clearly pointed out what the waitress most likely meant in their utterance, and that is how most reasonable, forgiving, earnest listeners would indeed interpret it. I am not trying to make the universe fit my theory, I am explaining why the form is problematic, and I stand by what I have said.

    The expression is not *obviously* idiomatic – its grammatical, and it does not obviously lead to nonsense when parsed. Its also similar to other expressions which are parsed normally (eg the construction using ‘few’ instead). Indeed, I believe the expression *invites* us to parse it, and, if we are not familiar with it, we are *forced* to parse it. That’s just what we everyday language users do, in the real world, when we don’t have ready to hand the historical or literary precedents that you may have! I feel sure that this would not be surprising to you.

    The thing about analysis, whether in science, or logic, or language is that it’s not to be used merely as an opportunistic tool for argument, and dropped at the point our purpose has been met. Its a tool of *discovery*, and that’s why we follow where it leads us, even if that place might seems a little strange. Indeed, this is often how we learn new stuff, how we *avoid* constraining the universe to our own just-so stories.

    As for your substantive points, I don’t agree:

    > Limitation naturally excludes the possibility that the entire menu is new; “all” is not a limited amount, it is the entire amount.

    Look again at your own, original use of the word ‘limitation’ in your original post – it was about exclusion, not limitation in numerical terms or along some sliding scale. You said, and I agreed, that:
    > In the case of one of the only, only means “without anything else.”

    Therefore, we can have;
    * One item (and nothing else)
    * Two items (and nothing else)
    * All items (and nothing else)

    In the last construct, the ‘and nothing else’ may be trivially true, or superfluous. That does *not* make the expression false.

    You are again here introducing new meanings as suits your purpose for argument. In your original post, you were stressing how this meaning of exclusion places the word ‘only’ in a uniquely useful position as *distinct* from the word ‘few’. Now you say quite the opposite.

    In thrashing about with ad-hoc arguments, you don’t seem to appreciate where you have arrived:
    > Limitation here (as in common English) means paucity.
    Er, you mean like ‘few’?
    > Am I saying that the way she said it is the best or clearest or most concise way to say it? No, that is a separate debate.

    We seem to agree that one of us has indulged in ad hominem attacks, in argument from authority, in lecturing, and accusation. One of us insists that the world meet their expectations. Your readers can make up their own minds which of us that might be.

    • First you say “the use of ‘only’ here is either simply incorrect, simply useless, or is being used to deceive” and then you plead idiomaticity. I am not talking about how you use it, I am talking about how she used it and I understood it. You wish to impose rules on that: “simply incorrect, simply useless, or … being used to deceive.” Very good, your idiom is your idiom; I was talking about her idiom and the common idiom of those who use it, who really are many – all you need to do is a little corpus search. You don’t get to set the rules for the many speakers who find it acceptable. You don’t get to decide that it’s uncommon on the basis of just your own perception of your experience.

      I did not say that your argument was argumentum ad hominem; you weren’t saying I was wrong because I was a bad person or whatever. Nor was I saying you were wrong because you were a bad person. I was saying that your line of argument was misguided and insulting. So no, we don’t agree that one of us has done an ad hominem. An expression of exasperation at poor and insulting argument, yes, but that’s not the same thing. I will say that “judging from my 50 odd years of experience as an English speaker” is an argument from authority. Alas, 50 odd years of experience of having a body does not make you a physician, and 50 odd years of experience as an English speaker does not guarantee that your analysis is correct or well founded.

      Your analysis of my analysis, by the way, misses the point quite entirely, and reiterates the same misunderstanding and same misrepresentation. It’s quite clear: “all of the items (and nothing else)” is not, within the ambit of the menu, an expression of relative paucity, i.e., limitation to somewhat less than the entire possible amount. Is that clear enough now? How many different ways does it have to be expressed before you run out of misreadings?

      Anyway, you don’t get to come to my blog, which is dedicated to a well-educated approach to language, and pontificate prescriptively about how I and other educated users are wrong and misguided without getting an argument back. You don’t get to lecture me as though you have authority without having that purported authority challenged. You don’t get to set all the rules and have everything your own way, not in language in general and certainly not here. Come with an argument, expect an argument.

      We do agree that my readers will judge which of us has reason on his side. We may as well let them do so. It will be very tiresome if you make the same arguments a third time and I have to answer them a third time.

  14. I’ve always understood “one of the only” to be an idiomatic expression meaning the same as “one of the few.” As has been pointed out previously (I skimmed, I’m sorry I can’t say by whom), we say “I know only X people who do that,” where it’s plain that “only” does not mean “one.”

    I’ve never even heard this argument before. I’m 56. I taught English and I’ve been an editor for over 20 years. This is entirely new to me.

  15. A bit of usage can be acceptable within a given group simply because it’s idiomatic, and therefore its correctness or its meaning cannot be derived simply from the sum of its parts. Is it not possible for a bit of usage to be deemed to be an error by a group by equally “idiomatic” reasoning? It’s an error within that group simply because the people in that group believe it to be an error, not justified by any reasoning about principles?

    • Certainly judgements about idiomaticity are, I would say, seldom based on explicit logic. Such “logic” as is applied is usually post hoc, in my experience…

      • We accept bits of language as idioms, without judging their sense on the basis of principles or components of phrases. I’m suggesting that a descriptivist approach could accept belief of errors as a component of language, not to be judged on logic or knowledge of facts. I’m saying that for some people there are elements of “error” that correspond to elements of language, and they can be studied symmetrically.

  16. How did we get here? How did we end up trying to force regular, formal, grammatical logic on what is admittedly an idiom (which we agree isn’t universally used), which, by definition, is peculiar either logically or grammatically? We might as well argue about putting the “d” back in “ice(d) cream,” or about trying to put an article or possessive pronoun into your “out-of-pocket” medication costs.

    “Ungrammatical” isn’t the same as “wrong,” and “grammatical” isn’t the same as “right.” Language bends. (And thank the universe for that!)

  17. Last post (promise!)

    I did not mean to say you had made a logical fallacy; I thought ‘Ad Hominem attack’ meant simply personal abuse, as distinct from ‘Argumentum ad Hominem’. if you say they must mean the same thing, then I’ll bow to your greater knowledge of Latin. You abused me, and accused me of abusing you (when as far as I can tell, I did not), and in my experience that is no way to conduct an argument.

    Re argument from authority: I said “..judging from my 50 odd years of experience as an English speaker, neither is it common”. In other words, I made the claim only that I have been an English speaker for 50 years, and that during that time I have encountered the expression but very rarely. If that’s a claim to authority, it’s a very limited one, and a clearly circumscribed one. I would say rather that its an appeal to the (admittedly limited) evidence that is available to me. You reply:
    > Alas, 50 odd years of experience of having a body does not make you a physician, and 50 odd years of experience as an English speaker does not guarantee that your analysis is correct or well founded.
    Indeed not, but neither did I make any such claim based upon my years of experience with English – this is simply misrepresentation.

    Your paragraph beginning ‘your analysis of my analysis’ confused me entirely. I don’t think you understand what I am saying at all, or we are talking at cross purposes.

    You are saying that
    > Limitation naturally excludes the possibility that the entire menu is new.

    In other words, I believe you are saying that, when when we take ‘only’ as meaning exclusivity or ‘and nothing else’, its not possible to interpret this sentence..

    >This is one of the only new items on our menu a way that makes it true when the entire menu is new.

    I am claiming that it is, and trivially so.

    The sentence:
    >This is one of the only new items on our menu.
    >This is one of the new items on our menu (and not one of the old ones)
    If all the items on the menu are new, then indeed the item is, trivially, one of the new ones, and not one of the old ones.

    You say the expression is idiomatic, and that’s as may be. I do not question what the waitress meant, or how you received her utterance, or even claim that I would, in the end, interpret it differently than you (possibly after a pause to ensure I had made the most generous interpretation I could).

    What I *am* saying is that it appears to me to be rare in use, it appears to invite us to parse it, and that, when parsed, the result is unsatisfactory at best.

    • Please just ignore this post, I should not have carried this on so long, and will not post again. I do apologise for wasting your time.

      • Well, obviously, we have provoked each other – you say you did not intend to provoke me, and I cannot contradict that, as I don’t know your intention; I will not pretend I did not intend to provoke you, as that’s something I do when I’m provoked, for better or worse. I think it’s clear that we’re not going to get any farther on this, as we’re pretty well dug in. At this point the readers will have lots to read and decide for themselves on, if they have the time. 🙂

  18. Yes, I am one of the only people who are bothered by *some* uses of “one of the only.” I object when it appears without the implied limitation. Yesterday in the Globe and Mail, it was reported that “The miracle berry is one of the only naturally occurring taste-modifiers in the world.”

    I suppose it must be. Just as the yellow pencil on my desk is one of the only yellow pencils in the world. The Sesquiotic blog is one of the only blogs in the world. Yuk.

    The miracle berry is one of the only taste-modifiers in the world *that occur naturally*. The yellow pencil on my desk is one of the only pencils in the world that are yellow. The Sesquiotic blog is one of the only blogs in the world that are written and responded to by self-important pedants.

    As to your statement that “you have to start with the fact that person A has said it and person B has understood it as person A has intended it, and that therefore – however it worked – it worked,” me can only thinking that just cause someone says it and gits there massage across don’t mean its rite nor aught to be accepted as Good English by the restive us.

  19. I am one of the only people who are bothered by this. There are only five million of us, and I am one of them.

  20. My Mac’s OAD defines the adjective sense of “only” as “alone of its or their kind.” This supports the logic of “one of the only.” It’s also true that this usage is common enough (even among educated and respected writers) to be a common grammatical peeve, so it goes far beyond the kind of understandable-yet-ridiculous idiosyncratic writing that Stuart describes.

    And yet I don’t complain about the contrary beliefs of others, for whom “one of the only” grates on the ears and who have their own explanations of their beliefs. (As I said above) explanations don’t really matter to me as long as the pattern of acceptance or rejection among educated communicators is well established.

  21. I find that there was a good post on this topic on Motivated Grammar: Getting lectured by people who don’t know English.

  22. Pingback: Annals of idiomaticity | Arnold Zwicky's Blog

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