More on ‘one of the only’


Definitions of adjectival “only” from recent dictionaries:

“alone of its or their kind; single or solitary” (Compact Oxford English Dictionary for Students)

“used to say that there is one person, thing or group in a particular situation and no others” (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English)

“single in number; without others of the kind; without others worth considering” (The Chambers Dictionary)

What all these definitions stress is the singularity of only, whether referring to one item or a singular group. If something is already singular, you cannot then have “one of” it.

Neal gives the sentence The 100 people in this organization are the only ones who know. This is covered by the Longman definition quoted above (“one group in a particular situation and no others”) .

Maxwell suggests we replace only by solitary in Waitrose’s statement, but for me that doesn’t make any more sense. He also says that if we remove the word only, the sentence is perfect. Of course it is: it is the juxtaposition of only and one of the that I cannot accept. Make it “Waitrose is one of only five IPs …” and I have no problem, or even “… one of only a few …”, “… one of the few …”.

In Waitrose’s statement, internet providers is qualified by only, but what does only mean in this position? If it means ‘few’, then they should have written ‘few’. If it means what the dictionaries all seem to say it means, then it is being misused.

Maxwell also suggests that I may be denying the existence of idiom. Of course not, but idiom also needs to be fitted to the style or register of the language being used. In a fairly formal style like the one that Waitrose is employing, care needs to be taken that the target audience will not be able to find fault with it. Inappropriate use of language often leads to a dismissive response by the readers or listeners.

Plus is defined in the dictionaries quoted above as an “informal” conjunction, but all the examples given show it as the first word of a sentence, not preceded by a comma.


  1. It is true to say “if something is already singular, you cannot then have “one of” it.” However, that is not what is happening in “one of the only internet service providers”. The ‘s’ on ‘providers’ is the clue; it’s a plural, obviously.

    You can have one of a group of things: ‘I’ll have one of the apples over there’. Why should that change when the group is modified by “only”, i.e. where the group is alone of its kind?

    Further to that, you surely don’t deny the grammaticality of “the only internet service providers to donate all their profits to charity”, as far as noun phrases with infinitival clauses go. And so there is nothing ungrammatical about either part, you must be suggesting that when combined they are somehow more ungrammatical than their sum. “one of” and “only” are serving different semantic functions – the first selecting from the group, the second defining the nature of the group – and so there’s no contradiction and no ungrammaticality.

    Just because it could be “few” doesn’t mean it’s a misuse in the same way the use of any word instead of its synonym isn’t a misuse. It’s a choice of the speaker – perhaps based on aesthetics because of the slight alliteration of “one of the only”, but otherwise just a choice of the speaker. “few” may be preferred by some – you, clearly – but they are synonymous and so the use of “only” cannot be a misuse. Unless you argue that we should have one word for everything and deny natural synonymy. At which point I’ve no way to argue.

    I seem to be supported in believing it to be a grammatical thing by the internet at large (429,000 examples of the thing on google), the New York Times, etc, regardless of venue or ostensible style. I had honestly never even doubted the phrase before, it seemed so obviously grammatical. I suppose it’s less obvious that I had assumed, but I still think it fine.

    As an aside, “plus” is clearly a conjunction, then, regardless of the limited examples they give you, and so functions identically to ‘and’, allowing for commas at the end of the clause immediately preceding it.

  2. “Only” is an adverb derived from “one”. Applied to a predicate, it means that there is one instance of an identity, state, or action, not more than one, for the respective subject. “John is my only friend”, means that I do not have two. “John is my only friend who speaks French” means that I do not have another friend who speaks that language. Waitrose’s sentence therefore means “We’re the only Internet provider to donate all our profits to charity”. The superfluous “one of” arises either because of the writer’s wish to emphasise the uniqueness of the identity, or, more likely, because he/she is writing as he/she speaks, a common failing.

  3. Maxwell says that “few” and “only” are synonymous. If that is the case, all my dictionaries must be very much out of date.
    He points out that Google has 429,000 examples of “one of the only”. The first two that come up on my browser are blogs arguing the toss as we are doing now. Google also has over 4 million hits for “one of the few”, i.e. ten times as many.
    The internet is full of mistakes, as we know, so it is difficult to make a good argument for the grammaticality of a structure from the number of hits.

  4. “The superfluous ‘one of’ arises either because of the writer’s wish to emphasise the uniqueness of the identity, or, more likely, because he/she is writing as he/she speaks, a common failing.”

    Hmm. To me, “superfluous” would imply “unnecessary.” I think “redundant” might be more appropriate since redundancy is used in most languages for emphasis* – and that’s what is at the heart of the matter here.

    * The common prescriptivist complaint against the double negative is that the extra negative particle makes a statement somehow positive (as if mathematical laws could be applied to grammatical conventions).

    They miss the point: that redundant extra particle serves to make the statement even more emphatically negative.

    Mobster to court room: “I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.”

    Does anyone honestly believe this means the guy is cleverly suggesting he will say something?

  5. @Anthony Pick: I really doubt Waitrose is claiming to be _the_ only company.

    “One of the only n things that foo my bar” is the same as “one of only n things that foo my bar” or “one of the n things that foo my bar”.

    “One of the only things that foo my bar” is the same as “one of the few things that foo my bar”.

    “One of the only” is not unidiomatic or illogical or ungrammatical, but it is puffery. I associate it with advertising or fansites seeking to puff up their product with claims that sound better at first than they really are on closer scrutiny.

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