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I have been criticized by colleagues in the past for using "on the other hand" as an alternative to "however" at the beginning of a sentence, because they said that you could only use it if a previous sentence featured "on the one hand".

My question is: while their argument is logical, is it really followed by usage?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 29 down vote accepted

You are right, it is fine to use "on the other hand" without explicitly mentioning "the one hand" - the reader/listener can easily infer it.

Indeed, using "on the one hand... on the other hand" in most contexts sounds laboured and overwrought. It is sometimes useful to signpost to the audience in advance that you are going to supply an opposing view later, in which case it is useful - but for the most part it is better to leave the first part out.

In support of this: I spent a little time perusing the British National Corpus. It reports 5311 uses of "on the other hand", but only 1417 of "on the one hand". That would seem to suggest that "on the one hand" is only used roughly one third of the time, but in fact it's even less than that, because (judging from a random sample) most uses of "on the one hand" contrast it with "on the other" (or not at all) - so it's probably closer to one in four.

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4  
In COCA, the numbers are 14952 and 3288, so on the one hand appears at most 22% of the time. –  Jason Orendorff Apr 9 '11 at 15:13
1  
+ 1 for statistics. –  Benjamin Jan 3 '12 at 12:03

"On the other hand" is a way of addressing the second part of a two-part problem or situation or solution. It does not have to be preceded by a sentence that states "on the one hand."

We have a great opportunity before us, as many have stated before. On the other hand, such an opportunity presents us with grave risks, so we would be wise to proceed slowly.

There is nothing wrong with that. "On the other hand" is simply another way of introducing a rebuttal to an idea, not an idiomatic formula. Your colleagues are trying to be over-consistent.

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It is fine to say "on the other hand" without saying "on the one hand" first if there was a first point that you are contradicting. You did imply that in your question, but I want to make sure about that.

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no, your colleagues are right. On the other hand should only be used, if it has been preceded by 'on the one hand'. That's the whole point of it, and Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries both say as such. If you prefer just use a synonym such as in contrast/conversely, but not 'on the other hand' in isolation.

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As far as I know it is "On one hand" (note that there is no THE in this sentence) and "On the other hand". Would the statistics change using these expressions as search terms?

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