Annals of idiomaticity

In putting together material on one and only earlier today, I stumbled on another well-known target of peevers, one of the only. One and only is accused of being evilly pleonastic, one of the only of being “illogical”, indeed incomprehensible; its purported offense involves an instance of the Etymological Fallacy — only historically derives from one, so it cannot be used in reference to groups (as in one of the only people to object) — compounded by a willful refusal to recognize idiomaticity (while idioms, not being fully compositional semantically, are, essentially by definition, not fully “logical”).

Jan Freeman, in a Throw Grammar From the Train posting last year, replayed a lightly edited column of hers (“Almost unique: What’s wrong with “one of the only”?”) from the Boston Globe of 3/23/08) that summarizes much of this material: she notes objections from Paul Brians, Barbara Wallraff, and Richard Lederer (Gabe Doyle 2009 adds the raver Robert Hartwell Fiske); cites a defense (unexpected) from prescriptivist James K. Kilpatrick; and looks at the history of the usage. In her 2014 intro to the Globe piece she collected spirited defenses from usage scholars Gabe Doyle (on his Motivated Grammar blog, in 2009 and 2013) and James Harbeck (on his Sesquiotica blog in 2011), and from self-described prescriptivist Bill Walsh (on his Blogspot blog in 2006).

Freeman on the history:

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.”

… 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.

Beautiful observations from Harbeck, in “Are you one of the only people bothered by this?” of 9/6/11:

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).

… The difference … 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.

Like Freeman said, nobody has to use it — but it’s perverse to insist that it’s incomprehensible, because it’s “illogical”.

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