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According to all dictionaries I can see and everyday use by native speakers, this is the correct way:

On the one hand, it's larger; on the other hand, it's more expensive.

What makes no sense to me instinctively is the use of the first the. What is the one hand? Shouldn't it be just one hand?

Is this a grammatically valid construct I just don't understand, or is it an idiom that has changed to improve the presentation of the comparison described? It arguably sounds better with the additional the.

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Note how you don't say "auf einer Seite,.. auf anderer Seite..." in German, either, but rather "auf der einen Seite,.. auf der anderen Seite...". –  RegDwigнt Jan 15 '11 at 18:53
    
@RegDwight good point! I'm still struggling to get my head around the fact that this is correct :) –  Pekka 웃 Jan 15 '11 at 18:59
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Note that "on one hand ... on the other hand"" is also correct and has no difference in meaning as far as I can see. –  Cerberus Jan 16 '11 at 0:07

6 Answers 6

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The definite article is used to signal that one is talking about specific items, not items in general.

For example, this exchange at the reception desk of the hotel.

Guest: I'd like a room.

Clerk: Will you be staying the weekend, sir?

Guest: No, just the one night.

The guest could have said "No, just one night," but adding the definite article makes it more emphatic and specific at the same time. This applies to "on the one hand" constructions as well.

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Hmm. But is this really a valid exchange? I could see it if the guest would order a room and mention that he has an appointment around the block tomorrow. The "the one night" would then be an implicit reference to the time span until the appointment, and that the guest doesn't intend to stay beyond that. But without that initial reference, would it really make sense? –  Pekka 웃 Jan 15 '11 at 15:16
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It is definitely a valid exchange. In fact, I heard it at the hotel I stayed at over the holidays. I've also used it myself. –  Robusto Jan 15 '11 at 15:18
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@Pekka: As @Robusto says, it is a very common exchange. People always "just the one" in order to emphasise the point. The the being present loosely implies a specific night, rather than an arbitrary single night. Even if it were "invalid" it is still common usage. –  Orbling Jan 15 '11 at 16:23
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@Orbling. Right, I think I have heard it too. It does sound rather informal to me; what do you think? This quote comes to mind, from Absolutely Fabulous, when Edwina is saying how she is chubby on the outside, but thin in spirit: — Eddie: In this body there is a thin person dying to get out. — Gran: Just the one dear? –  Cerberus Jan 15 '11 at 23:55
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@Cerberus: Lovely quote. :-) In the UK it would not be considered informal at all, indeed it may actually be viewed as a slightly more mannered rendering. –  Orbling Jan 16 '11 at 1:27

If you are talking to the person face to face, you'd emphasize the statement by waving one hand as you said "on the one hand", and by waving the other as you said "on the other hand". Then "the one hand" and "the other hand" are quite clear. And I'd be surprised if that was not the origin of the expression.

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On the one hand, it might be there for emphasis, just as in you slept with her on the one day I asked you to behave. Then the question would be: why is emphasis often felt to be needed with "hand", but normally not in similar phrases, such as on one side of the paper ... on the other side ... and tie one end of the rope to ... tie the other end to ...? On the other hand, I think it might be there not for local emphasis, but to make sure the reader gets that the two sentences introduced by each "hand" are to be taken as linked but opposite perspectives. Using "the" serves both to give them a common marker and to increase the visibility of the first "hand" as a signpost. I don't really feel that on one hand and on the one hand are used with less or more emphasis (but I could be wrong [duh]). Consider that you normally wouldn't say on the one side of the paper: the article is usually only added to "one" when there are three or more choices.

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With a slight alteration to one of your examples, the definite article can be shown nicely. "on one side of paper .. on the other side", using the in the second statement declares that it is the side of the paper previously mentioned. I also agree with your commonality argument for the two linked statements. –  Orbling Jan 15 '11 at 16:27
    
@Orbling: I don't quite understand what you mean by your example sentence... why did you leave out "the" before "paper"? And does "previously mentioned" belong to "side" or to "paper"? I think to "paper"? –  Cerberus Jan 16 '11 at 0:05
    
To "paper", yes. I left out the initial the, slightly against the run of flow, to show how it operates in the second statement. You could not use "on the one side of paper", using the "on the one" construct, but it can be used in front of paper, changing the meaning from any piece of paper "on one side of paper", to a given piece in use "on one side of the paper". –  Orbling Jan 16 '11 at 1:31
    
@Orbling: Ah, now I understand, thanks. –  Cerberus Jan 16 '11 at 2:10

Though I'm not sure of the origin, I expect it's a back-formation from the phrase 'on the other hand', in the same way that people say 'that's a whole nother issue', contracted from 'another', where what they mean is 'other' (though in this case it's acknowledged as incorrect).

I disagree that it indicates a definite object - were it not for the idiomatic status of the phrase, 'on one hand' would be a perfectly valid alternative construction. If it wasn't developed subsequently to 'on the other hand', I'd guess that it was still designed to parallel it.

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I think "a whole nother" is more of an infixing of "whole" into "another". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 19 '11 at 15:07

There's another aspect here that bears mentioning: this "one thing...the other thing" construction applies to objects that come in pairs, where the objects are essentially interchangeable. So saying "on one hand...on the other" indicates that it doesn't matter which hand we're talking about, just that we're talking about one of them. But we employ "the" when referring to the other hand because we specifically mean the remaining hand.

I suspect that "on the one hand...on the other hand" is simply an intuitive parallel construction. It persists because it is still grammatical and doesn't impede understanding.

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The here specifies a particular set of hands, just two. You have the one hand and the other.

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Did you mean "...a particular set of hands, not just two"? –  Jimi Oke Jan 15 '11 at 16:28

protected by RegDwigнt Apr 4 '12 at 15:23

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