I asked a question some days ago about if an atributive-only adjective can be followed by a pronoun one, for example in this sentence

When the Olympics began in 779 B.C. There were not a lot of events. There was only one.

...but the answers just got me more confused because I thought one, as Oxford and Longman dictionaries say, is a pronoun; but someone said it is a noun.

Could you please tell me if my sentence above is correct or not, because I think there is something wrong with that — especially with the attributive adjective only and the noun or pronoun one but I really don't know what.

  • 1
    Suppose it had said "there were only twelve". Would you think that "twelve" is a pronoun?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 21:33
  • 1
    Oxford does say that one is a pronoun. But a pronoun is simply a particular type of noun which has a special name (Although here it might be a cardinal number [adjective] followed by an ellipted event [noun]). I'll await a grammarian...
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 21:37
  • 1
    "There was only one." seems correct to me, but one is a number in this case rather than working as a pronoun. "There were not a lot of events. There was only one." There is an easily avoided redundancy here, since one is not a lot. Perhaps simply say "When the Olympics began in 779 B.C., running was the only event.
    – Cargill
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 21:58
  • "One" can't belong to the syntactic class of pronouns because it occurs readily with determiners. And like most common nouns, but unlike pronouns, it inflects for number, e.g. "The other ones are nicer".
    – BillJ
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 22:31
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    Edwin Ashworth. I think the main discussion in this part of the thread is about pronoun vs noun. No matter, I think it was me that said that pro-nominal "one" is a noun, not a pronoun because it occurs readily with determiners and it inflects for number (e.g. "a red car and three black ones"), neither of which personal pronouns can do. "One" does belong to other categories, as you rightly say. It's a personal pronoun in "One must be careful" and numerical "one" is a determinative in, "I have one son and two daughters".
    – BillJ
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 10:58

4 Answers 4



  • One should be careful.

... the word one is a third person singular pronoun. Notice that even though it is singular, it doesn't need a Determiner. This pronoun one cannot be modified by adjectives and can't be postmodified by preposition phrases.


  • Give me one jumper.

... the numeral one is functioning as a Determiner in a noun phrase. It's a determinative according to the CaGEL. This word can also not be modified by adjectives:

  • *Give me blue one jumper. (ungrammatical)


  • Give me the big one at the back

The word one is a bona fide noun. Notice that it can take a range of Determiners such as the, this, that, my. It also has a plural form like other nouns (and when plural can also have Determiners that occur with plural nouns such as many, more, some):

  • Give me some big ones from the back.

Notice also that like other nouns it can be modified by adjectives, such as big in the example above. And like other nouns it can be postmodified by preposition phrases. So in the example above we see it modified by the preposition phrase from the back.

The OP's question

There was only one.

In older grammars this one might be regarded as a pronoun. In modern grammars such as the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston & Pullum 2002), this would be regarded as a determinative occurring in a fused Determiner Head construction. It is a bit like the middle example above give me one jumper but with the jumper part missing. In the Original Poster's example it means:

  • There was only one [event].

The Original Poster's sentence is perfectly grammatical. We quite often use the adverb (as opposed to the adjective) only to modify noun phrases:

  • It was only [a small bump].

In the Original Poster's example, one counts as a whole noun phrase.

  • Are you sure that "one" is not a pronoun in sentence "Give me the big one"? If you said, "Give me that", the word referring to the unspoken object is certainly a pronoun. Is this different? Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 2:32
  • @Malvolio Yes, because it has a Determiner "the" and an adjective big. When we use a pronoun it 'replaces' the whole noun phrase. "Give me the great big blue ball at the back" becomes "Give me it". But in "Give me the great big blue one at the back", the word one has the same grammatical properties as the word ball - and all the extra words around it too. It's just an unusual noun because we use it like a blank Scrabble tile. :) Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 2:38
  • @Araucaria so you mean in my sentence "there was only one." Only functions as an adverb not an adjective ? Because i think it makes sense to for me
    – haha
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 10:39
  • By the way I am eternally grateful to you all
    – haha
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 10:41
  • @haha Yes, that's an adverb in that sentence :) Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 13:45

I would argue that in this particular usage one acts more as a pro-form. This can look, at times, very similar to a pronoun but not quite the same. Whereas a pronoun replaces a noun or nounal-phrase, a pro-form replaces a lexical construct referenced elsewhere in the context. The construct a pro-form replaces can be essentially any part of speech.

Note also that a pro-form can be a pronoun at the same time as a pro-form. Not all pro-forms are pronouns, not all pronouns are pro-forms, and sometimes something is both a pronoun and pro-form.

In this case "one" refers to a member of events, which have already been contextualised. Since it refers back to something which you've already been talking about, it's a pro-form.

When the Olympics began in 779 B.C. There were not a lot of events. There was only one.

I would say that in this instance one is not also a pronoun (nor a noun) because one here purely points back to a member of events and not to a specific event. You could rewrite the sentence with a pronoun instead:

... There were not a lot of events other than skateboarding. In fact, there was only it.


The fact that "one" can be modified by "only" is not a good reason for saying it is a noun, because "only" is not actually an adjective -- it's an adverb that can modify various things. However, it is easy to find examples in which "one" really is modified by an adjective -- "I want a blue one." Also, like a noun, "one" can be modified by a prepositional phrase. And "one" if modified can occupy the position of a noun in a noun phrase: "the blue one".

So, it's a noun. (The fact that it is sometimes called a pronoun is meaningless; that is not a fact of English.)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 18:21
  • I've seen a paper suggesting a different category for these common but ill-behaved modifiers such as 'even', 'just', 'only'. In 'there was only one', 'only' essentially qualifies the fact of there existing one by adding that there were no others. Certainly not an adjectival function (though 'lone' gets the same idea across), and far from being a prototypical adverbial one. Commented May 24 at 14:08

"One" is usually a pronoun (or a determiner) but not always.

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