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“one of the only”
Posted: 21 November 2012 12:15 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I’ve been reading and hearing this a bit, lately.

I am aware that idioms do not always make sense when dissected: I have no _complaint_ about this phrase but because I have not been familiar with it for long, it still does jar a little for me.

The meaning is clear enough: it just means one of the few.

Some examples from the wild:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_House_of_Representatives_elections,_1922

Pennsylvania was one of the only states to conduct redistricting between 1920 and 1922

From Jerry Seinfeld:

A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.

Holocaust Encyclopedia:
http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005198

Buchenwald was one of the only concentration camps that held so-called “work-shy” individuals

Consider the following examples :

1/ Panama is the only country in Central America that does not use postal codes.

This is quite straightforward: there’s one member of the set.

2/ Panama is one of the few countries in the world that does not use postal codes.
3/ Panama is one of only a few countries in the world that does not use postal codes.
4/ Panama is one of the only countries in the world that does not use postal codes.

I would say that these three all mean the same thing. I should think the first two would be completely uncontroversial and the third is the case I am discussing.

5/ Panama is one of only two countries in the world that does not use postal codes.
6/ Panama is one of the only two countries in the world that does not use postal codes.

These two also mean the same thing as each other, and are a bit more specific than 2, 3, 4. I personally would _prefer_ 5/, but 6/ certainly seems more acceptable to me than 4/.

Is the form in 4/ widely disparaged or is it just me?

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Posted: 21 November 2012 02:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I agree it’s illogical at the moment, but this may be a case where usage is modifying the meaning of “only” to mean “few”.

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Posted: 21 November 2012 05:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The OED doesn’t treat the phrase, which is surprising since the only entry was updated in 2004—I think 2004; the OED’s method of documenting its updates is undecipherable—and the phrase is quite common, but it does have this in citation in the entry for Clarisse:

1879 Encycl. Brit. IX. 153/1 One of the only two nunneries of the Clarisses in Scotland existed at Aberdour.

A quick look at Google Books turns up other uses of “one of the only two” going back to at least 1790.

The idiom may have arisen by a dropping of the number.

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Posted: 21 November 2012 05:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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3/ Panama is one of only a few countries in the world that does not use postal codes.

‘That do not use postal codes’, surely!

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Posted: 21 November 2012 06:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Dave, as per my OP, I am drawing a distinction between the form “one of the only two nunneries” and “one of the only nunneries”. My post is primarily about the latter.

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Posted: 21 November 2012 09:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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"One of the only [plural] who/that X” is an extremely common construction in the US: so much so that the vast majority of people who use it use it without noticing its oddness.  And I’m pretty sure it’s not new: I remember hearing it when I was in high school, which was quite a while ago (20 plus years), and it wasn’t frowned on as a newfangled usage at the time.  I have no idea if this is an “Americanism” but I am inferring that it probably is based on the general reaction it seems to be getting.

I think DW recognized the distinction you made, and that that’s why he included the comment that perhaps the construction (at one point) may have had a number included in it (as in the example he used) but that speakers later began dropping the number (as in the example you focus on in the OP).

I can only speculate about how “one of the only [plural]” became common despite its illogic.  It seems plausible, as DW mused, that (to paraphrase his point rather clumsily) the construction began life as “one of the only [specific plural number] of Xs who Y” and it morphed into “one of the only [unspecified plural thingies].”

I also wonder, but am just guessing, if the fairly similar construction (which is also common, at least in the US), “one of the only ones who X” played a role in this transition.  (An example of this construction would be, “I have been criticized for not wearing a flag pin on my lapel every day, but I would like to point out that I am one of the only ones who ever wears it at all.") Of course, in that construction, “ones” is not a number but rather means something like individuals or entities [who X].  So, I think “one of the only ones who X” is just as illogical as “one of the only [plural thingies] who X”, but maybe the former “felt” like an acceptable construction since it almost looked like it had a number in there, and then “one of the only [Xs]” rode in on its coattails.  But that’s jus a WAG as I don’t know, among other things, the date that either usage first became common (in the US).

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Posted: 21 November 2012 09:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Similar to ‘’One of the only”, I think, is the expression ‘’ one of the [superlative]”, most, largest, fastest etc. I was taught in grade school that “one of the [superlative]” was illogical. The notion clicked in my young mind and it took me a half century to get over the squeamishness I felt when I heard “one of the [superlative]”. Persons on this forum probably helped me understand.

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Posted: 21 November 2012 03:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I think DW recognized the distinction you made, and that that’s why he included the comment that perhaps the construction (at one point) may have had a number included in it (as in the example he used) but that speakers later began dropping the number (as in the example you focus on in the OP).

Well I apologise [f I misunderstood.

A bit of judicious Googlation tells me that this construction does have its critics.

It is listed in Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians . http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/only.html

The National Geographic Style Manual also recommends that this form be avoided. http://stylemanual.ngs.org/home/O/one-of-the-only

Meanwhile, Gabe Doyle defends it on his Motivated Grammar blog. http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/tag/one-of-the-only/

It certainly shows up in some respectable places, including articles in popular newspapers. No doubt I, and everyone else, will get used to it in time.

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Posted: 21 November 2012 03:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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From The Anti-Chomskyan Redoubt:

The bible is one of the only books that survived the fire.

George was one of the only lieutenants who were promoted to captain.

We hear or read sentences like this all the time – in news reports or in magazines and journals. Writers use this structure, editors approve it, and readers or listeners think they understand it.
The only problem is this: such sentences are meaningless. The problem is in the word only. It does not mean few.

What does it mean, then? Note that we could say:

Cars are owned by only one million Chinese.

One million is a lot of people, but compared to the total population of China, one million is a small number.

So the meaning of only is not few, but relatively few. Now if you are a true-blue Chomskyan, you believe that grammar is innate. The brain automatically and correctly employs the various grammatical structures of your language, because these structures are built in and ready to go. But clearly people are misusing this structure, even those who are educated and possess the ability to speak and write well.

What is lacking in examples such as the above is some way of showing ‘how few.’ One grammatical way of doing this is as follows:

The bible is one of (the) only three books that survived the fire. (out of a possible one thousand in the house)

George was one of (the) only five hundred lieutenants who were promoted to captain. (out of a possible eight hundred being considered for promotion.)
Guang was one of (the) only one million Chinese who owned a car. (out of 1,200,000,000 living Chinese.)

We have to show only three out of one thousand, only five hundred out of eight hundred, etc., because the purpose of the only structure is to show how relatively few an occurrence was in comparison to the maximum possible occurrences (one thousand books saved, eight hundred lieutenants promoted, 1.2 billion Chinese car owners).

Another way of showing relatively few does not require placing a number after only. I could hold up three books in my hand and say:

These are the only books saved from the fire.

You could count the three books in my hand or otherwise perceive that the number was very small, and you could then deduce that the number of surviving books was relatively small. Let’s call this the deictic structure.

But the facts are pretty clear: a great many people do not automatically know how to use this structure properly, and many more hear or read the structure and think they understand what it means when in fact it is only meaningful if one mistakenly assumes that only means few.

As I said earlier, I suspect the meaning of “only” is being extended, by popular usage, to mean few, so eventually “one of the only” won’t sound as innately wrong as we find it now.  Living languages, like living organisms, grow and develop. Dead languages don’t.  There’s no point in pounding out hundreds of words proving why a construction is wrong when people increasingly write it and say it.

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Posted: 21 November 2012 03:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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There’s no point in pounding out hundreds of words proving why a construction is wrong when people increasingly write it and say it.

Quite.

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Posted: 21 November 2012 04:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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? A) The bible is one of the only books that survived the fire.

B) The bible is one of (the) only three books that survived the fire. (out of a possible one thousand in the house)

These two statements, leaving out the parenthetical in the second statement, are equally meaningless if we don’t know how many books were in the house.  While the “one of the only” construction can sound stilted, I’d hesitate to call it ungrammatical, and including the parenthetical “the” in B is just as stilted.  As far as meaning goes, grammar and meaning do not have a one-to-one correspondence.  You can easily construct a grammatical yet meaningless statement and just as easily an ungrammatical and meaningful one.

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Posted: 21 November 2012 05:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Only doesn’t have only one definition. It implies relatively few most of the time but doesn’t require it:

Only right-handed people should use this machine.

Only strong women need apply.

Clearly these refer to a majority of the groups, people and women. Only suggests a class that is exclusive of all others. Usually this is smaller than the majority, but not always.

Great link, Eliza. Mine is a very small quibble. I’m going to go back and see if I can understand any more of Chomsky.

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Posted: 22 November 2012 04:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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That’s a terrible article. Not only does it display a deep misunderstanding of Chomsky, but it also shows a complete misunderstanding of semantic analysis and demonstrates that the author didn’t bother to look the word up in a dictionary.

Only does not mean “relatively few.”

In all the cases where the author of this blog post claims only means “relatively few,” it is actually being used to delimit a unique class.

Cars are owned by only one million Chinese.

The group of one million is unique. No Chinese outside this group own cars.

The bible is one of (the) only three books that survived the fire.

All of the books that survived the fire are contained in this set of three books.

George was one of (the) only five hundred lieutenants who were promoted to captain.

Again, there is a single group of lieutenants who were promoted. There are no others in addition to the five hundred.

Yes, there is an implication that the total population of Chinese, books, and lieutenants is much greater, but the purpose of only in these sentences is to limit consideration to a unique set.

By the same token the phrase one of the only (with no numeral) also delimits a unique class, only the class is not explicitly described.

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Posted: 22 November 2012 05:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Svimyard, that is a very instructive comparison. Nowadays no one blinks at “one of the (superlative)(noun)s”.

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Posted: 22 November 2012 07:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Only does not mean “relatively few.”

It does mean few in “one of the only xxx"* but the phrase isn’t yet in the OED.  When it does appear there, I suspect the dictionary’s definition of “only” will include “few” because that is what everyone who uses the phrase means.  What else do they mean by “only” in this phrase?

*followed by a noun without a numeral

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Posted: 22 November 2012 09:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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The superlatively instructive comparison was Droogie’s, not mine.

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