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I'm a little confused by the phrase "one of the only" - as far as I can tell, it just means the same as "one of the" with the vague implication that the number of things in the set is relatively small.

For example, "Neil Armstrong is one of the only men to land on the moon." It sounds like he's one of the few men to do this, just without using the word "few". Because then it's obvious that you're using the vague word "few" and not saying what it means.

"He is the only man to do this" - that's clearly saying that only one person has ever done it.

"A, B and C are the only people to do this" - again, that's clear, there are only 3.

"A is one of only 10 people to do this" - clear. There are 10 in the set, and A is one of them.

"He is one of the only people to do this" - doesn't seem to say anything at all. He's not the only one, but there is no clue whether 3 people have done it or 3 million.

"He is one of the few people to do this" / "He is one of the people to do this" - not clear, but at least it's clear that it's not clear. If you see what I mean. It's not trying to sound like it's saying something when it's not.

Or does "one of the only" actually have some specific meaning?

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It means roughly the same as "one of the few". – Hot Licks Apr 28 '15 at 11:48
up vote 0 down vote accepted

In my experience it's a way of indicating how extremely rare the 'thing' is.

To use your example of "One of the only people to" ... vs "One of the few people to...". Both phrases indicate that more than one person did the 'thing' but that not many people did the 'thing'.

Using the former phrase is a way to add emphasis and an indication of the level of difficulty or challenge associated with the 'thing'. For example I would use the following in conversation:

"He is one of the only men to land on the moon" vs "He is one of the few people to orbit the earth"

Landing on the moon is much more rare, and difficult, than orbiting the earth. Of course, orbiting the earth is still rare, and difficult.

My opinion or interpretation - don't think you'll find a definitive answer.

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There is denotation and connotation of words in English, and that fact can't be ignored for purposes of logic or argument. Only does not carry a vague implication of a small number. It carries a connotation of a small number, sometimes one alone; an only child, the only redhead, the one and only.

Only: "being the single one or the relatively few of the kind; having no sibling or no sibling of the same sex; single in superiority or distinction; unique; the best."

If it were a vaguely smaller number, then a sentence like this would make sense:

We started with 2,000 tickets, but we only sold 1,994.

Someone hearing that would think the speaker was very, very ungrateful for their very good fortune. It is much more appropriate to say

We started with 2,000 tickets, and we only have 6 left!

"He is one of the only people to do this" - doesn't seem to say anything at all. He's not the only one, but there is no clue whether 3 people have done it or 3 million.

You're right; there is no specific number which constitutes only. In this case, it carries the connotation of a relative few. If it is being used correctly, it does, indeed, mean a relatively few people. Though few, I agree, sounds good.

Thousands of people climb mountains every year, but only 350 or so people have climbed the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each of the seven continents). Fewer still have climbed the Seven Second Summits (many are harder to climb that the highest). Therefore if someone said, he is one of the only people to have climbed the Seven Seconds", it means something.

The Milky Way Galaxy is enormous, but it contains only ~300,000,000,000 stars. 300 billion sounds like a lot. Seeing as there are 100 billion galaxies in the universe, it's safe to say only 300,000,000,000 stars. Because the Universe is estimated to have about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. If my math is correct, for every star in our galaxy, there are ~33,333,333,333,333 other stars. And only about 5000 of them are visible to the human eye.

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You say "if someone said, he is one of the only people to have climbed the Seven Seconds, it means something." I disagree. Because I have no idea how many people have done this, and because you don't tell me, to me it means nothing apart from a vague implication, right? The only information I get is that he has climbed them, but not how significant this is. – francis Apr 3 '14 at 13:57
@francis - If I agreed with you, I wouldn't have posted a dissenting opinion, would I? A word has limitations. It also has connotations. It's up to you what you want to believe about them. ;) – medica Apr 3 '14 at 19:53
It isn't a vague implication. The phrasing is giving a specific connotation that the number is very low...the only thing it does not do is tell you the exact number. – Oldcat Apr 4 '14 at 0:22
Francis, you're directly contradicting yourself here. A vague implication is not nothing. ‘Only’ doesn't tell you any exact number, but it does tell you that the number is being implicitly compared to some other ‘majority’ number, which is much bigger. That's not telling you nothing; that's saying quite a lot for one little four-letter word, actually. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 4 '14 at 6:03
@francis - 5 miles into a 500 mile trip is not "almost there". 5 minutes into a 7 hour trip doesn't mean you will now soon arrive. You are not one of the only people who ride a bike. You are one of many who ride a bike. This is an English Language Usage site. People better than I at English have tole you what the answer is. Anyway, we do disagree, it appears. But I don't want you to leave feeling that we confirmed your bias. We have not. – medica Apr 4 '14 at 18:35

"one of the only ..." means it's easy to make an exhaustive list of the ones with the attribute "..." and the one you're talking about is on that list.

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One of the only means one of the few.

Only means few in this phrase (one of the only . . .).

5. being the single one or the relatively few of the kind: This is the only pencil I can find.

--"only." Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 10 Jul. 2015. Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/only. [Bold emphasis mine.]

A1 used to show that there is a single one or very few of something, or that there are no others

--"only." Cambridge Dictionaries Online. Cambridge University Press. 10 Jul. 2015. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/only

Many dictionaries, however, do not include this sense in their definitions of only as an adjective, and a controversy is described in a usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary:

... The expression one of the only is sometimes called out for being illogical, as only implies singularity but the noun following it is plural in this construction. The Usage Panel is mixed on the subject. In our 2008 survey, 48 percent accepted the sentence He is one of the only hard-working people left around here. Many panelists may object to the use of the word as an adjective to mean "few" instead of "one" (as in That's the only pen I have left).

--"only." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 10 Jul. 2015. https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=only

That English speakers, in reality, do use only to mean few, is made readily apparent, I suppose, to most native speakers if we recognize the type of usage in this example sentence from the Collins dictionary:

the only men left in town were too old to bear arms

--"the only." The Collins English Dictionary. Collins. 10 Jul. 2015. Cambridge Dictionaries Online http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/the-only#the-only_1.

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Let's try this. The "only person". This has a clear meaning, singular individual> One of the "few". Implies a limited group. One of the "only". Leaves the reader dead in the water. It is a word used without any context, meaningless, and out of place. One of "only a few". "Only" here doesn't add any meaning to the phrase, just emphasises "a few". So I see "only" as a way of emphasising words which follow, and "a few" does this job much better, and in a much clearer way. Using "only" with nothing to follow the word, leaves the reader waiting for clarification. Just my impression. I must admit I hate "one of the only". This really makes me cringe, as there are much better options available to express the underlying meaning of the speaker.

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The meanings of words in some languages are clear and precise. The English language is not a member of that club. In reality, the seeming imprecision of English is an understandable by-product of its infinite flexibility which, in turn, has made it the international language of commerce, law, business, and air traffic control. Such flexibility means that in active usage, CONTEXT will often guide native speakers to appropriate meaning, rather than adherence to a single, precise meaning.

"One of the only" is a case in point. Resist the impulse to break the phrase into 'one', 'only', and 'the only'. Playing with those components is fine, but 'way off-topic. We are dealing with a discrete phrase, and its usual meaning is to INTENSIFY the exclusivity of a choice of some kind. Thus--

"Of all the defencemen, he is one of the only left-handers who consistently scores from the point"

Pretty long-winded, so how about "he's the only left-hander who consistently scores from the point." No. Misleading. This states that ALL the other left-handers are inconsistent. How about "He's one of the few left-handed. . . ." No. Misleading. This states that of the entire pool of left-handed defence-men, only a handful EVER score from the point. Again, that's not what you're trying to say.

I could give many more examples, and undertake a detailed discussion about 'only' and 'few', but since others have done an excellent job on that one, further remarks here would just be redundant.

Don't hope for a precise answer to your question. Not available. You can be satisfied only of three things about this phrase: 1] it is a sanctioned colloquial phrase, so it is not regarded as poor or incorrect usage. It will not brand you as an escapee from the low end of the trailer park 2] it is correct grammar 3] it is always an INTENSIFIER Points 1. and 2. will help you relax, if that's an issue. Point 3. will guide you in, and the context that then unfolds will help you determine the degree of exclusivity you desire, and THAT will help you decide whether you want this phrase.

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