One of the only


“We offer a fast, reliable, honestly priced connection, plus we’re one of the only internet providers in the UK to donate all our profits to charity.”

This is the claim of

It’s amazing how anyone can really think that “one of” and “only” can come together in the same sentence. A moment’s thought must bring the realization that “one of” anything must be one chosen from a group which contains others, whereas “only” means quite clearly “the one and only”. So is Waitrose the only internet provider in the UK to donate all profits to charity, or is it one of the (?)few, (?)many IPs so to do?

The fact that “one of the only” is a common phrase, found everywhere, does not make it acceptable English. It is understandable in the spoken language, where we change our mind half way through many if not most of the sentences we utter, but in supposedly thoughtful written language, it should be amended to something more meaningful.

The punctuation of Waitrose’s statement is also less than perfect: there should be at least a semi-colon, if not a full stop, before the word “plus”.


  1. What about the only two, or the only ten? I’m fine with the former; uncomfortable with the latter. What about the 100 people in this organization are the only ones who know? I think only works fine for numbers greater than one, provided you actually put a contextually reasonable limit on the number. To me, one of the only people who X is fine to the extent that I can believe that only a small number of people X. If I were to find out that 90% of the Internet providers in the UK donated their profits to charity, I would find Waitrose’s statement grammatical, but highly misleading. But if the percentage is something like 5% or less, I’d say the statement is fine.

  2. I’m reminded of people who say things like “I bet it might rain tomorrow”. Well gosh, that’s a bet you can’t lose, as the proposition that it “might rain” is true regardless of what happens.

  3. ah yes – that’s one of my pet peeves too.
    “That is really unique”…. grr.

  4. First of all, PRESCRIPTIVIST.

    Second of all, as far as I can see you’ve misunderstood what’s going on. “One of the only internet providers to donate to charity” here means “A member of the limited class of internet providers who donate to charity”. To show you what I mean, remove ‘only’: it’s just “one of the internet providers to donate to charity” which is really fine English despite the slightly clumsy infinitival clause. ‘Only’ applies to the plural, indeterminate class of internet providers. If we take ‘alone, solitary’ as synonyms for ‘only’, to clarify, then it applies to the solitary CLASS rather than the solitary provider. I hope that makes sense; I know mentally why it makes sense when one takes it apart but I can’t verbalise it.

    And anyway, do you deny the existence of idiom entirely? If so, hilarity.

    Also, ‘plus’ here seems to be used as a conjunction identically to ‘and’, and although it’s a matter of style I’m pretty certain it’s fine to put a comma before such a conjunction (as I did just then without thinking about it).

  5. I don’t agree that “only” has to mean “the one and only”. On the contrary, “only” can readily be used with plural nouns, e.g. These are the only companies that donate all their profits to charity. The ad says that this particular company is one of those. I can’t quite see what is wrong with it.

  6. Maxwell, first of all –


    …who seem far more dogmatic than many so-called PRESCRIPTIVISTS.

    Why can’t those who piously abhor prescriptivism (as I suppose we must call it) realise that an awful lot of people who have to use words regularly need to know how these words are spelt or pronounced, what they mean or have meant and how they are used?

    This need stems from a desire to make oneself understood.

    Very few normal people would deny language change takes place, is in fact necessary and often delightful.

    But quite often change takes place through a muddiness of thought, a desire to appear impressive, to trim, to strive for tone at the expense of meaning thus denuding words of their power.

    Are ‘ramp up’ or ‘raft of policies’ really welcome additions to the our language? The prescriptivist will accept them, but he or she does not have to like them, and would be right to be on guard when they are used.

    This is what I meant about descriptivists being more dogmatic than supposed prescriptivists.

    In fact of course, there is no battle here. Descriptivists describe language and the processes language change, and prescriptivists prescribe careful and alert use and are wary when people use words with apparent disregard for meaning.

    Keep up your bright swords, or the dew will rust ’em.

    Language is not just an object of disinterested study, but also a tool that must be kept sharp.

    ‘One of the only’ seems fairly harmless to me though, I have to say – its apparent illogicality embedded too deep to confuse anyone hearing or reading it.

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