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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
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it seems to be a rant in disguise. – Jon Purdy Sep 12 '17 at 11:33
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    @JonPurdy: I'm voting (via review queue) to leave this open because even though it seems ranty, a) it doesn't seem to be just a rant (there is an actual answerable question) and b) if it's closed, it makes it impossible for anyone to post an even better explanation of the meaning of the expression than the ones already present. I don't see what good closing it would do; it just seems like a way to express disagreement. If there is concern about this question attracting too many bad answers like John Cox's below, it could be protected (although that doesn't seem necessary yet to me). – sumelic Sep 12 '17 at 17:31
  • @sumelic: That’s fair. I was on the fence about it, and I’ve since retracted my vote because I think in this case it could be valuable to people searching for the phrase. In general I err on the side of voting to close questions that come from an attitude of “this phrase or idiom doesn’t make logical sense” because the answers often have the same form of “well, it doesn’t have to be logical, but here’s what it means and why”. That is, they tend to first “un-ask” the question a bit and give a nearly general-reference answer. – Jon Purdy Sep 13 '17 at 20:49

12 Answers 12

1

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.
Regards

  • -1 I don't think there is such a distinction between one of the only and one of the few. – Jim Reynolds Feb 13 '18 at 7:24
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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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    @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. ;) – anongoodnurse Apr 3 '14 at 19:53
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    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
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    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
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    @francis - I will not agree that only means "a vague implication that the number is relatively small", I say that's the very definition of the word in English. That's like saying few is vague, or that soon is vague, or almost. They are not vague; they simply do not have a definite number. You would be using only wrongly if you said that you were one of the only people to ride a bike. The question has been answered; but you don't like the answer because you disagree with it. You want your bias confirmed. I have not done that. – anongoodnurse Apr 4 '14 at 18:28
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    @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. – anongoodnurse Apr 4 '14 at 18:35
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One of the only means one of the (relatively) few.

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

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

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

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 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.

2

"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.

  • -1 Would be improved if there were a reference; I'm suspicious that it necessarily means this, that it always means this and only means this. – Jim Reynolds Feb 13 '18 at 7:19
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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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Here's BBC agrees, that the phrase "one of the only" is a logic error and tautology both.

  • -1 This does not link to "The BBC" issuing any sort of decree on the acceptability of the phrase. It links to a clip from a radio program in which several people (rather incoherently, to my ear) give several opinions that simply express their various tastes and/or seemingly random-ish thoughts on the phrase. – Jim Reynolds Feb 13 '18 at 7:42
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I believe "one of the only" is a confused way of saying "one of the few" or "one of a minority" for example. As a neologism, sadly, it adds nothing helpful but rather adds to the proliferation of blurred distinctions that impede clear communication. Clarity is valuable in Trumpian times when the borderline between fantasy and reality is hidden under 'alternative facts'.

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One of the only is an error. It is an increasingly common confusion of "one of the few", and "the only". One of the only should never be used.

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    -1 Evidence for any of these statements? – Jim Reynolds Feb 13 '18 at 7:28
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I agree that "one of the only" seems to be used widely to mean "one of the few", the latter expression being clearer and immune from attack by the most stringent grammatist.

  • Keith, welcome. This is a helpful comment, but not really an answer according to our guidelines. Please take the tour. – Davo Oct 20 '17 at 14:04
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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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"One of the only" is generally used to mean "the only one I know of but there may be others because I don't really know what I'm talking about". This is why you often hear it used by television commentators or journalists who write for glossy magazines

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This got too long as a comment, so I'm reworking it as an answer.

I looked this up just now because this has been bugging me for a year or two now. I probably used this phrase myself many years ago, but haven't lately. And now when I hear it, I think every time that it seems completely devoid of meaning. I read the answers and comments here, and I can appreciate that there is a connotation. Yes people do use it to add emphasis. It means what it does just because people believe it means that. The selected answer is based on experience, not something that provides derived meaning.

True, that's language. I know language and English isn't a realm of precision and accuracy, and isn't based on underlying principles of the universe or something. I'm a person that likes to have that precision and meaning to some degree, but language doesn't usually bother me.

But just listen to it or read the words. It doesn't mean anything. The word "only" does not add anything to the phrase because additional required information isn't there.

A couple answers gave dictionary links for dictionary.reference.com for the word "only". I went there and all of the examples are singular examples. None indicate few. Another dictionary doesn't say anything that includes "few" and examples are "alone of its or their kind; single or solitary". Yet another dictionary did include "few" in the third definition, but it was in the context of this very phrase we are discussing.

Of course you can say "this is the only pencil I can find", and you can also say "these are the only pencils I can find" and those are both great. But in the case of the multiple pencils, it means there are no more than (these in my hand or wherever indicated). So "only" is singular, or can be non-singular while otherwise limited by more information in context. The phrase "one of the only" has no context, and therefore seems to have no meaning.

As another multiple example - "I have only orange pencils" indicates that the speaker's only pencils are orange. Either that or they really have nothing at all besides orange pencils, but it's probably the first. This still provides a meaningful limitation.

Another answer said to not break it down and it's a discrete phrase. Too bad :) It starts out "one of the..." Now that makes sense. You can put all kinds of things next and they have some kind of meaning - such as "few", "three", "biggest", "orange", etc. So that word that comes next indicates the group to which the "one" belongs. "Only" doesn't cut it for that. It's not a group. It doesn't provide any meaning toward identifying a group (apart from circularly arguing it has the meaning from the phrase we're talking about).

So my conclusion is that this phrase exists only through colloquial usage. It's accepted, isn't regarded as poor or incorrect grammar. But it doesn't have any meaning behind it that goes beyond just an odd language invention. It is used to convey emphasis, so instead of "one of the few", it's more like "one of the very very few" or "one of the very limited exclusive few". Why it conveys this emphasis seems to be just due to historical usage since nobody can come up with anything else from what I've read. The word combination itself doesn't have meaning. I know language can work that way, but I don't have to like it :)

protected by sumelic Mar 7 '18 at 0:06

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