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One of the only

Q: Are you as upset as I am over the growing use of the meaningless phrase “one of the only”? I keep seeing it used by journalists and other professional writers! Do you know how it started? I’m guessing it was coined by an advertising copywriter trying to impart exclusivity to his client’s pedestrian product.

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but we see nothing wrong with “one of the only” followed by a plural noun. It’s not unusual and it’s not new either, since it’s more than 400 years old.

Perhaps you object because you think “the only” implies just one, but that’s not the case. In some constructions, “only” is used legitimately in a plural sense to mean very few.

For instance, if “only three people” know a secret, they’re “the only three people” who know it. And if Jack is among them, then he’s “one of the only three people” who know it. Nothing wrong there, either grammatically or logically.

Merriam-Webster Online, in its entry for “one of the only,” says it’s an idiom meaning “one of very few” or “one in a small class or category.”

The dictionary gives two examples: “That was one of the only times I ever saw my father cry” and “This is one of the only places in the world where the plant is found.”

M-W is the only standard dictionary with a separate entry for the phrase “one of the only.” But others include the plural sense of “only” in their definitions of the adjective (we’ve underlined the plural senses):

Cambridge: “We use only as an adjective to mean that there is just one or very few of something” … “being the single one or the relatively few of the kind” … Lexico: “Alone of its or their kind” … Webster’s New World: “alone of its or their kind; by itself or by themselves” … Macmillan: “used for showing that there are no other things or people of the same kind as the one or ones that you are mentioning” … Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “being one or more of which there exist no others of the same class or kind.”

As we mentioned, “one of the only” isn’t a recent construction. The earliest example we’ve found is from a book on exploration published in 1599:

“From thence passing many dayes trauell, I came vnto a prouince [province] called Casan, which is for good commodities, one of the onely prouinces vnder the Sunne.” From The Principal Nauigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, by Richard Hakluyt. (The passage translates the Latin account of a Franciscan friar’s travels to the East. The friar, Odoric of Pordenone, dictated the memoir on his deathbed in 1330.)

And this example was recorded a few years later: “he was one of the only men that sought the ouerthrow of their Dominion.” From The Historie of Iustine (1606), George Wilkins’s translation of the Latin original by the Roman historian Marcus Junianus Justinus.

In old book and newspaper databases, we’ve found many other examples from every century since then. Here’s a smattering of examples, and as you’ll notice, “one of the only” is often followed by a number plus a plural noun:

“one of the onely three supposed to haue preached” (1633); “one of the only three honest, valuable men in England” (1770); “a piece of Roman architecture; one of the only pure pieces perhaps in England” (1772); “one of the only two genera which constitute this order” (1819); “one of the only four surviving patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence” (1820); “one of the only two candidates that have ever been seriously thought of” (1824); “one of the only two ships” (1825); “one of the only two persons on board” (1827); “one of the only three brethren who could preach to the natives” (1832).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no separate entry for “one of the only.” But the phrase appears in a few of the dictionary’s citations for other words and phrases.

This one is found in an OED entry for the noun “Clarisse,” the name of an order of nuns: “One of the only two nunneries of the Clarisses in Scotland existed at Aberdour” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1879).

And the dictionary’s entry for “static” has this: “J. H. de Magellan, writing in 1779, said that he had seen a static barometer started by Sisson (one of the only two such instruments in Europe at the time).” From English Barometers 1680-1860 (2nd ed., 1977), by Nicholas Goodison.

In short, “one of the only” has been an established usage for centuries, in literary and scientific writing as well as everyday English.

No one, as far as we can tell, objects to the phrase without “the,” as in “one of only three dissenting voices” or “one of only four survivors.” But judging from comments on the Internet, many people are bothered by the phrase with the article, whether or not a number follows, as in “one of the only three dissenting voices” or “one of the only survivors.”

However, we see nothing wrong, grammatically or logically, with those constructions. If a litter of puppies includes two girls and eight boys, there’s nothing illogical in the sentence “We reserved one of the only two females.” In other words, “Of the only two females, we reserved one.”

Of course, without “the,” that sentence would still make sense (“We reserved one of only two females”). But “the” doesn’t make it wrong or illogical. In fact, we think “the only two” is more emphatic than “only two.” The presence of the article emphasizes the smallness (or fewness) of the number of girls in the litter.

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