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The "One of the Only" Kerfuffle:
Last week I was widely quoted in the press referring to the Heller case involving the constitutionality of the DC Gun ban as:
one of the only cases in our lifetime when the Supreme Court is going to interpret an important provision of our Constitution unencumbered by precedent.
As soon as the quote appeared, I received a couple emails correcting my use of "one of the only." As one correspondent wrote:
You're quoted in the morning's [Washington Post], p. 1, above the fold: "This may be one of the only cases ...." Eeeek! What, pray tell, does "one of the only X" mean?! One hears it all the time, but parse it if you will, and see what you get.
A few minutes later, another wrote:
Let me introduce you to a useful word: few. As in,,,this may be one of the few cases in our lifetime.... In view of your substitution of "only," it bears mention that the oft-abused "unique" means one of a kind. Mitchell Strickler, Yale Law 1961
But then the emails stopped. So I was taken aback when the Sunday Boston Globe ran an entire column, entitled "Almost Unique," analyzing the correctness of my usage:
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."
After listing several authorities in support of the criticism, the column then turns to an interesting defense of the usage:
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 Ășnicos). 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.
I must say that this kerfuffle brought to mind the exchange between Will Farrell and Dustin Hoffman in Stranger Than Fiction. When Farrell's character, IRS Agent Harold Crick, tells Hoffman's character, literature professor Jules Hilbert, that the voice he hears apparently narrating his life said disturbingly: "Little did he know that this seemingly innocuous act would result in his death," Hilbert suddenly becomes interested and responds: "Little did he know? I've written papers on "Little did he know." I've taught classes on "Little did he know."

Little did I know that "one of the only" would turn out to be so noteworthy. Who da Who'd a thunk it?

Update: I now notice that the BBC changed the quote for its audience to "our Constitution" from my reference to "the Constitution." Makes sense, but is still an interesting liberty taken with a direct quote.

George Lyon (mail):
You are right up there with most of the best sports commentators. Opps.
3.26.2008 12:40pm
Curt Fischer:
If I were you I'd tell your correspondents that:

1. "One of the only" is synonymous with "one of the few"; that
2. this phrase is in common usage, as witnessed by its million-plus Google hits; that
3. unparsable idioms are common elements of not only English but all languages!; and that
4. you are glad that you were able to help them with English, which, after all, is sometimes a very difficult language to master.
3.26.2008 12:50pm
Visitor Again:
Well it might be English usage, but it's not proper usage and it's certainly not preferred usage.

We have people saying things like "The party was so fun" instead of "so much fun." And the Barnetts of the world will pick up on it and try to make it acceptable usage.
3.26.2008 12:57pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
It seems to me that "des seuls" can mean "the lone ones" or the lonely ones, which made me think of this:

Only the lonely (dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah)
Know the way Randy feels tonight (ooh-yay-yay-yay-yeah)
Only the lonely (dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah)
Know this feelin' ain't right (dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah)

Apologies to the late, great Roy Orbison.
3.26.2008 1:00pm
Curt Fischer:

We have people saying things like "The party was so fun" instead of "so much fun." And the Barnetts of the world will pick up on it and try to make it acceptable usage.


I hate to break it to you Visitor Again, but to me "so fun" is already acceptable! I suspect it is to a huge number of other English speakers as well. For example, everyone I know.
3.26.2008 1:01pm
Thoughtful (mail):
Improper word usage abounds. For example, recently I heard someone say, "Any of Obama, Clinton, or McCain would be fine Presidents" which is surely incorrect.
3.26.2008 1:01pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
VA, in fact last week's party was funner than any I've been to for a while. A girl there in fact said "How fun!"
3.26.2008 1:02pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
[Picking the low-hanging fruit] The correct version of course is None of Obama, Clinton, or McCain would be fine Presidents."
3.26.2008 1:04pm
Steve P. (mail):
And the Barnetts of the world will pick up on it and try to make it acceptable usage.

It already is common usage.

Who, exactly, decides whether it is 'proper' or 'preferred' usage?
3.26.2008 1:05pm
pgepps (www):
This is silly. As long as I can say "Granny Smith apples are the only apples I like for applesauce" in English, which is possible because English considers not only singulars and plurals but also aggregates, though these last are only partly grammaticalized; as long as I can also say "this apple is one of the Granny Smith apples I bought for making applesauce"; so long I may say "this is one of the only apples I like for applesauce." It is a particular example of an exclusive aggregation.

Jeez, people, can we analyze rather than ostracize, a bit, here?

FWIW, a "so" without any correlating element, not used as a conjunction, is sub-standard *written* usage. There is a completely separate word "sooooo" which translates "very" in spoken usage.

Cheers,
PGE
3.26.2008 1:14pm
Gino:
Reminds me of the great "unmanned drone" kerfuffle of '06. (Sigh.) Good times. Good times.
3.26.2008 1:25pm
Thoughtful (mail):
I see Mr. Tutins has caught exactly the error to which I referred...
3.26.2008 1:28pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
Amazing. The only sensible way to deal with these people is to ask them how they managed to get so old without having heard of idioms.
3.26.2008 1:31pm
Turk Turon (mail):
The BBC seems to take liberty with direct quotes in a way that the U.S. press won't. For example, the BBC frequently quotes Americans as using words like "whilst" and "shan't". Brad and Angelina using "whilst"?
3.26.2008 2:43pm
Cheburashka (mail):
"Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are the only days of the week on which I wear pants."

The preceeding parses as an English sentence. Ergo, "one of the only" is a correct usage.
3.26.2008 2:51pm
DJR:
Did the second e-mailer actually sign off with his law school and year of graduation? That is one of the most pretentious things I have heard in a while.
3.26.2008 2:56pm
Juan (mail):
Uno de los Unicos
With O at the end
3.26.2008 3:12pm
duglmac (mail):
Excuse me, "one of the only cases" is not wrong.

You could easily point to several cases that the SC will interpret in our lifetime and say "Those are the only cases that will be interpreted in our lifetime, and btw, that there Heller case is one of them." Q.E.D.

You give your critics too much credit.
3.26.2008 3:24pm
Roscoe B. Means:
According to my Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1989), the word "only" means

"being the single one or the relatively few of a kind."


That seems to support Randy's original usage.
3.26.2008 3:29pm
BABH (mail):
"One of the only" is clearly correct. When something is "unique" there is one thing - and one thing alone - that meets the criteria. "Only" on the other hand, can easily be used about several things, e.g. "Only three people were in the room when Mrs. Peacock was killed".

Hence: "Col. Mustard was one of the only people in the room at the time".
3.26.2008 3:33pm
bob (www):
Funny to read this post just before the next one, which begins with, "The United States has a rather unique approach to punitive damages..."
3.26.2008 3:50pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Randy, fear not, those criticizing you are WAY off base. This is not at all like "very unique," which I'd agree is incorrect. The expression "the only" can have plural referents, so "one of the only" is a perfectly cromulent expression.
3.26.2008 4:32pm
dearieme:
Save a syllable, say "few". Oh, but you are a lawyer.
3.26.2008 5:30pm
John (mail):
I believe it's "who'd a thunk it," not "who da thunk it."
3.26.2008 5:30pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
I haven't seen Stranger than Fiction, but the quoted exchange reminds me of the scene in Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, where Prof. Rosenbaum buttonholes a fellow professor (of English? Politics?) at a party and says (quoted from memory) "Nijinsky said 'Politics is death'. Is that right? Is that right?" The other professor is rather flustered, and Rosenbaum continues "Politics is death, not politics are death?"
3.26.2008 5:39pm
Bruce:
Update: I now notice that the BBC changed the quote for its audience to "our Constitution" from my reference to "the Constitution." Makes sense, but is still an interesting liberty taken with a direct quote.

Nonlawyers don't have as many hangups about sense-preserving changes to direct quotes. You don't have to bracket a capitalization change in the Chicago Manual of Style, for example.
3.26.2008 5:43pm
Richard A. (mail):
Since no one has yet cited that great authority on English usage Roy Orbison, I will point out the that the title of the song "Only the lonely" alludes to a plurality of people, and could be stated no better.
3.26.2008 7:09pm
Greg O:
Am I one of the only people who understand the problem here? Apparently I am, because if I understand the problem I am, by definition, one of the only people who do. The problem is that that phrase is so uninformative. Am I one of only three people, one of only a thousand, or what?
3.26.2008 9:07pm
Curt Fischer:

Greg O: Am I one of the only people who understand the problem here? Apparently I am, because if I understand the problem I am, by definition, one of the only people who do. The problem is that that phrase is so uninformative. Am I one of only three people, one of only a thousand, or what?


Very nice. Maybe I'll start up a blog and just for fun my first post might be about the phrase "one of the few". Will you come by the post similar thoughts in the comments? I'll need the traffic.
3.26.2008 10:15pm
Bruce:
Reminds me of the great "unmanned drone" kerfuffle of '06. (Sigh.) Good times. Good times.

The NY Times referred to a "pilotless Predator drone" a few days ago. I had the remix playing in my head for several minutes.
3.27.2008 12:28am
Radford Neal (mail):
The problem with "one of the only" is that it is, or sounds like it is, subtly dishonest. It appears like the writer wanted to say "the only", but then lost their nerve, not being sure that there was really only one. But they didn't want to say "one of the few", because it doesn't sound as forceful. So they said "one of the only", hoping the reader will take it to mean "the only", while having the out if challenged of saying they meant "one of the few".
3.27.2008 1:10am
KevinM:
"The only girls in the class with red hair are Susan, Mary and Sally." Therefore, "Sally is one of the only girls in the class with red hair."
Meaning not unclear, at least not to me.
3.27.2008 12:58pm
DLacey (mail):
One of the only X doesn't quite mean the same as one of the few X - it means the same as one of the X, with an added connotation, rather than denotation, that the X are pretty exclusive.

You should note, along these lines, that the word "one" can also be plural. "See those apples? Those are the ones I was telling you about." "The ones you want are on the left side of the aisle." And to compound it, "There are twelve kids in her kindergarten class, but Susie and Mikey are the only ones my daughter wants to invite to her party."
3.27.2008 4:43pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
IMHO, "one of the only" should be replaced with "one of the few", unless it is followed by a number, i.e. "one of the only four Presidents to run for President again after leaving office."
3.29.2008 11:18pm