Q&A: “One of the only?”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we explore the phrase “one of the only”…

Q: … which is how they ended up red!
A: Wow, that’s actually quite fascinating. Oh, everyone’s here. Quick, get into character!
Q: Ahem. So um, hey there AWC – I have a question for you.
A: How can we help this week?
Q: It’s a question from a reader named Jan actually. She’s not happy with the phrase “one of the only”. To quote her, she takes offence because “only” already means “sole” (e.g. “that was the only biscuit we had” or “the only one of its kind”).
A: Hmmm. It has a few other meanings, but go on.
Q: She understands that you can be “one of many”, but can’t work out “one of the only”.
A: Well Jan, great question. And if you want us to paint you a picture, English is like a petulant child, running around to all those who use it and yelling “IN YOUR FACE!”, then laughing and running off. It’s terribly immature.
Q: What does “petulant” mean again? I’d like to use it more in casual conversation.
A: It means to be sulky or childishly bad tempered. We’re actually not sure why we haven’t used it here more ourselves.
Q: So, your answer for Jan?
A: In the phrase “one of the only”, it’s like “only” is heading out on the town, and asked to borrow the outfit that “few” usually wears. For example, you can say that Tuesday is “one of the only” days of the week that begins with the letter “T”. You can also say thatTuesday is “one of the few” days that begins with “T”.
Q: So it means the same. Why not just say that then?
A: You’re right – “few” looks much better in the outfit and gets far more compliments from grammar buffs. But the English language is more flexible than a Romanian gymnast, and “only” can also work in the right context.
Q: Such as “English is one of the only languages that would allow such nonsense.”
A: Yes, an excellent example.
Q: Hmmph.
A: If we’re talking about outfits, the word “only” does of course look much better in its usual “one of its kind” definition attire. E.g. “Tuesday is the only day with seven letters in its name.”
Q: That’s a fun fact.
A: Isn’t it though? But yes, “one of the only” can also be found in statements like “Buzz Aldrin was one of the only people to walk on the moon” or “drop bears are one of the only types of bears in Australia that can kill tourists”.
Q: That Tuesday example from earlier – there were only seven days to choose from. Hardly grounds to start announcing anything is “one of the only” out of just seven.
A: That’s true – the effect is better when the sample size is bigger. And by the way, you just used “only” in its adverb form (“only seven days”), denoting a limited number of something – probably what got us into this mess in the first place.
Q: Good to know. So, a recap?
A: English has more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie. (A good M. Night Shyamalan movie. Okay, that’s only The Sixth Sense.) And for that reason, a lexical chameleon like “only” finds itself sharing wardrobes with “few” in the phrase “one of the only”. Where possible, we would recommend using “one of the few” – e.g. “she is one of the few women to have ever travelled in space”. But Jan will need to accept that “only” is also here to stay.
Q: Well I think it’s silly. I’m one of the few people who will not be using it.
A: Maybe just on Tuesdays?

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore? Email it to us today!

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