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I was reading a book that had a sentence containing this:

...onetime commissioner of New York...

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This does not answer your question about the differences, but in your quote "onetime" means "he/she once was, but is no longer, a commissioner of New York." It might also be inferred that the person only served as commissioner for a single term. – horatio May 6 '11 at 14:29
up vote 7 down vote accepted
  • onetime, one-time:

    1. former, previous, erstwhile, quondam. So "a onetime commissioner of New York" was a commissioner at some point in the past, but no longer holds that office. I usually see this meaning written without a hyphen.
    2. occurring once, e.g. "hopefully, that was a one-time mistake". IME this meaning is more likely to have a hyphen.
  • one time:

    1. once, on one occasion. "Yes, I went there one time."
    2. once upon a time. "One time, in band camp...".
    3. Can also occur in phrases such as at one time (formerly, at a previous time; or sometimes, simultaneously).
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You forgot whilom. :) – tchrist May 2 '12 at 1:58
  • According to the NOAD, and also to the OALD, it's spelt as "one-time". It's an adjective (so it goes before nouns, usually) and the first meaning is "former".

The other meaning is "of or relating to a single occasion: a one-time charge."

So it can be both. The sentence you provide has not enough context to decide which one of those two is the right meaning for your case.

  • About "one time", I don't think it's used, since the correct way to say that is "once", for example:

I've been to that Stadium only once.

Same goes for "two times" which is "twice". These are the only exceptions, after them you say: Three/four/five/etc... times.

(see comments too)

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"One time" and "two times" are most definitely used. Perhaps the most famous use of "one time" I can think of is "One time, at band camp, ..." from the movie American Pie. Another usage would be "At one time,..." as in "At one time, copper was the best metal that humans could smelt and work into tools." Of course, "once" and "twice" could be used interchangeably with them, requiring some small structure changes to the sentences in some instances. – Phoenix May 6 '11 at 13:38
I see... Well, you listed slightly different uses where I might agree, but wouldn't it sound odd to say "one time" instead of "once" to say "Once, I went to..."? It reminds me of "too much time" Versus "too long"... – Alenanno May 6 '11 at 13:40
Not odd at all. It's apparently even the title of a song by Justin Bieber(ugh), which is flooding the Google results for it (along with One-time code pads, as unfortunately, Google seems to ignore dashes). "too much time" isn't odd either. – Phoenix May 6 '11 at 13:56
"One time" is very common. Far more common than "spelt," at least in my part of the US. – horatio May 6 '11 at 14:32
@horatio: This NGram suggests that spelt is largely British usage, but that we've increasingly fallen in line with the American spelling over recent decades. – FumbleFingers Sep 10 '11 at 14:40

Strangely, my American Heritage dictionary says that onetime (not hyphenated) means former, and one-time (hyphenated) means only once. I'm not sure I completely believe this distinction, at least in terms of how it is actually used. I suspect many people are completely unaware of this distinction (as I was until I looked it up this morning).

Certainly, when it is used as an adjective (either meaning), it should be spelled onetime or one-time. Otherwise it should be two words.

One time only! A special concert for ...


One-time pads are the only truly secure cryptosystems.

John, a onetime professional basketball player ...

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