Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I'm One of the Only Prescriptivists Who . . .

A colleague wrote a caption saying that an object was one of the only things recovered from a New Orleanian's house after Katrina hit, and another colleague gently pointed out that "one of the only" makes no sense. It should, he said, be "one of the few."

I disagree. It would be one thing if only always referred to one and only one thing, but that's not the case. Webster's New World defines only as "alone of its or their kind," and nobody objects to "only two people . . ." and the like. 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?

23 comments:

Dr. Zoom said...

I'm not buying it. To me, New World's plural reference is to a collective. Besides ... why champion the cause of blurring the distinctiveness of only's "accepted" definition when there's no doubt about few?

LL said...

The problem with "one of the only" is not that it makes no sense. The problem is that it doesn't convey any information. If you quantify it, it provides information, e.g., "one of only 3" or even "one of only few". Without quantification, it's just noise.

Bill said...

Well put, LL, but ...

I was about to say that the "few" meaning of "only" is obvious, the same way it's obvious that "quality merchandise" doesn't mean "low-quality merchandise," but then it occurred to me that "one of the only" has a useful non-"few" meaning:

If you're not among the only 70 percent of Americans who know the year in which the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, you're probably not reading this site.

Seventy percent isn't "few," but it sure is "only."

Third Reading said...

Saying "only" there is editorializing, Bill. Why does a reporter need to say this? In most cases, you let the reader or a source decide if it is "only".

There's nothing wrong with "Seventy percent of Americans know the year in which the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, a new study says."

Then quote a few folks saying how low that number is. It's that simple. What's the point of using only at any time?

Bill said...

Well, maybe I'm writing an editorial! We're arguing about the grammar here.

Petula Wright said...

I love your blog. I do not have a specific comment regarding your post, but simply wanted to say: "Thanks."

Would love for you to visit my blog... although I am a little nervous about that. You know, the whole copy editor thing! It has nothing to do with writing, but you may enjoy it.

Linda said...

I'm with Bill. It looks to me like it's clearly not incorrect -- if you can have "the only things saved from the house were the pen and the dog," then I don't see how you can't have "one of the only things saved from the house was the dog." You're just not specifying what the other things were. You're not specifying them if you say "few," either.

So you're left with whether it's (1) confusing; or (2) inelegant. I don't think it's either one. I think it's a way of using the word "only" that effectively conveys exactly what "few" would convey -- that not much was saved.

Sure, "one of the few things saved" would also be fine, but I don't think "one of the only things" is wrong.

DAK said...
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DAK said...

I dunno, Bill. Today I was left with an empty feeling upon reading this on page E7: "Yesterday, [Nats pitcher] Rauch ... had one of his only poor outings of the last four weeks." Okay, so the reporter is conveying that he hasn't had many poor outings. But he's a relief pitcher, and we're only talking about four weeks. "One of the only" suggests he's had more than one poor outing. How many does it take to go past "only"? "One of only three [or whatever]" would've been appreciated. "One of the few" would've served the purpose better without making the reporter do any more homework.
It's not a grammatical error, but it does seem like poor usage in this case.

Len said...

In my unasked-for opinion, the use of "only" in the first example is fine since it is describing a number of objects. In the second example, however, "only" is being used to describe the frequency of poor performances by a relief pitcher. To my ear, using either "only" or "few" in that manner is dodgy at best. The reporter should have written something on the order of "Rausch pitched poorly, which has been rare for him over the last four weeks."

MuPu said...

I was surprised to see you take this stance, Bill.

I agree with LL et al.

"One of the only" is weak and, in some cases, could be deceptive. The only solid information we get is that there is at least one other item like it. It also tells me that the writer wants me to believe that there are only a few others like it, whether that's true or not. Unscrupulous advertizers might use the phrase to make their products seem "more unique." It's fluff at best.

Am I one of the only people that knows that the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001? Yes, but I'd never say it that way — unless I wanted you to think that only a tiny percentage of the population shared my knowledge.

My opinion: "One of the only" is a sleezy phrase used by people with an agenda. It should be avoided by serious journalists.

Len said...

I don't understand what the problem is with "one of the only" in the Katrina story context. I understand the criticism to be that it is not specific enough, but what was the caption writer supposed to do? Count all the objects recovered for an exact ratio? "The tuning fork was one of 732 items recovered from the house." Since the original set of objects undoubtedly numbered in the thousands, doesn't using "only" convey the notion that not many are left? "Few" might convey that idea as well, but does it convey it any better?

"Only," being made up of a subset of the letters in "lonely," has a certain sadness about it that that "few" doesn't. And since a sense of desolation is probably what the subject of the photo felt, I think that using "only" was a good choice, expressive and correct.

LindsayLu said...

Seen today on the Fox News website:

"While groups such as birthright israel continue to attract Jewish Americans to the homeland, some Christian and Muslim groups are postponing their trips to the Mideast"

MuPu said...
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MuPu said...

Before somebody jumps on me, I should say that my "unscrupulous advertizers" and "sleezy" references, further up, were a little harsh. And a little misspelled.

BeninSalem said...

I'm late to this, but...
If I can say:
- "My father, uncle and I are the only members of the family who wear glasses."
- "Rob, Bruce and Jack were the only miners to make it out alive."
- "She clutched a photo album and a singed doll, the only belongings she could save from the fire."
Then why can't I say (ignoring contorted constructions):
- "I am one of the only members of my family who wear glasses.
- "Rob is one of the only miners to make it out alive."
- "She clutched a photo album, one of the only belongings she could save from the fire."

Admittedly, in all three cases you would be better off with the first, more complete construction. But what's gramatically problematic about the use of "only" in the second set of examples?

MuPu said...

I'm looking at this from an editorial standpoint, which goes beyond just the grammatical considerations.

In beninsalem's post, he demonstrates that there is nothing grammatically problematic with his examples. He is correct. However, his first set of sentences leaves no doubt about the numbers, while the second set leaves plenty to be pondered.

I'm not suggesting that we remove words like "only" and "few" from the language. It's just that they can sometimes be used to cover up the truth or, more to my point, to cause a reasonable person to wonder if the writer is "spinning."

If 85 percent of hotels offer free wireless Internet service, and La Quinta Inn advertises that it is "one of the only hotels" that does so, then it may be telling the truth, but it is also misleading us.

How can journalists justify using this phrase in contexts that leave readers wondering if they're being misled?

Ellie said...

I'm coming late to this party, but I agree with LL. Unless "only" is quantified, I don't think it makes sense.

"One of only a few belongings" would be fine. "The only belongings she managed to salvage were...." would be fine. "One of the only" just sounds clumsy. In beninsalem's example, "Rob is one of the only miners to make it out alive" doesn't tell you enough. How many miners made it out alive? Three? Three hundred? At least "one of only a few" would give you some kind of indication, and (as mupu says) wouldn't leave the reader wondering what isn't being said.

Linda said...

I don't think it's ever going to cause any genuine confusion. True, it doesn't say everything, but I've never looked at a sentence with this construction and wondered whether "one of the only" referred to many or only a few.

It strikes me as one of those things where you can theoretically come up with a way that people could claim to be confused, but nobody is ever actually confused.

Stuart said...

I agree with Bill also.

"One of the only thing" would be wrong, "One of the only things" is right.

crabbydog said...

People are using very contorted logic to make this expression work. In reality its meaningless.

One of (the) few is clear and succinct and unambiguous, and no one would argue against it.

Bill said...

At the risk of being forced to turn in my prescriptivist card, I have to ask: Where does the burden of proof lie? Sure, I've shot down widely used expressions whose meaning is clear, but are such expressions guilty until proved innocent?

Unknown said...

But the only need not be few. I can say: Only the inexperienced who haven't bothered to read the manual press the wrong button.
They however may be the majority.