I cannot make much sense of one in the following passage from Moby-Dick:

Now the various species of whales need some sort of popular comprehensive classification, if only an easy outline one for the present, hereafter to be filled in all its departments by subsequent laborers.

If outline is a noun in this passage, then one must serve here as a pronoun. If so, isn't the sentence lacking in punctuation? Rewriting would make it less ambiguous:

Now the various species of whales need some sort of popular comprehensive classification, if only an easy outline, one for the present hereafter to be filled in all its departments by subsequent laborers.

Furthermore, I can't help thinking that one is not needed here at all:

Now, the various species of whales need some sort of popular comprehensive classification, if only an easy outline for the present, hereafter to be filled in all its departments by subsequent laborers.

If Melville correctly worded this sentence, what is the function of one in it? What are your thoughts on my modifications?

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    I would agree with you on punctuation, but otherwise you are judging Melville's style rather than his grammar. Melville was born 200 years ago, and style changes.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Sep 9, 2020 at 11:07
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    The difference the passage with and without "one" is the between an "outline classification" and an "outline". Commented Sep 9, 2020 at 11:44
  • 17
    Maybe "outline" is being used here as an adjective. Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 0:28
  • 10
    @MichaelHardy Yeah, to me "outline" clearly seems like it's modifying "one", i.e. "a classification, but only an outline one". The people here seem much more knowledgeable than me though, so I'd like to know why that isn't true.
    – Nico A
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 1:10
  • 1
    Yep, outline as adjective is what makes sense to me too.
    – JonathanZ
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 15:11

5 Answers 5


I'll address one question here, the acceptability of the pronoun 'one' in

  • Now the various species of whales need some sort of popular comprehensive classification, if only an easy outline one for the present, hereafter to be filled in all its departments by subsequent laborers.

Quirk, Greenbaum et al label this usage of the pronoun 'one' (they also mention others) as 'substitute one':

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language 6:55

The substitute pronoun one has the plural ones, and is used as a substitute for a count noun, or for an equivalent nominal expression:

  • I'd like a drink, but just a small one.

Substitute one can be easily combined with determiners and modifiers:

  • the old one in the kitchen

As Greybeard implies, the pronoun 'one' here sounds clumsy to modern ears. I'm not at all sure how or even whether this relates to particular antecedents. It seems rather to be related to the particular premodifier (which here must always be in an identifier, even if of a class [... I prefer to use a heavy one], not a descriptor, role).

  • ??/*Today's high tide will be less dangerous than yesterday's one.

  • *John's car is not as fast as my / Jill's one.

  • ??/*_ A cricket ball costs more than a hockey one._

  • ??/* the Cottage one on the kitchen table.


  • _I prefer the new car / lawnmower / Jenny / design / operating

to the old one._

It appears that possessive determiners, possessive noun constructions, and attributive nouns don't readily accept substitution by 'one'.

This has been my own opinion on the matter; thanks to Araucaria I've been introduced to the work of Baker [See, for example, Corpus Linguistics and Linguistically Annotated Corpora By Sandra Kuebler, Heike Zinsmeister]. He claimed there was a grammaticality difference between the two sentences in

  • (3) a. The student of chemistry was more thoroughly prepared than the one of physics. [example 14b in Baker 1978:415]
  • b. The student with short hair is taller than the one with long hair. [example 23 in Baker 1978:419]

I wouldn't go so far as to say that (a) here is a representative of an ungrammatical category (and other researchers named in Araucaria's linked article come down heavily against this). But certainly Baker has picked up the fact that (b) sounds far more idiomatic, more natural, than (a), and that this is a general feature of adjectival vs attributive noun modification (whether post- or pre-) of substitute one. It also seems that acceptability of especially certain examples where conversion to adjetives (You have the chocolate eclair, and I'll have the coffee) is increasing quite quickly.

Other determiners, and adjectives (that, another, the previous / third, the red / light / tall / lowest / smelly / old / considerate / sophisticated / expensive / wooden / ...) all seem to work before 'one'. However, with some adjectives, it's more difficult to achieve sentences which sound natural ("I don't like Jim's three older sisters, but I'm fond of Sally ... you know, the considerate one").

The problem with Melville's sentence is that 'outline' is not an adjective but an attributive noun. Quite possibly, this usage sounded less unnatural in his day.

  • 17
    What's wrong with “A cricket ball costs more than a hockey one”? example Commented Sep 9, 2020 at 20:32
  • 14
    The problem with Melville's sentence is a problem only if there is something wrong with saying "an outline classification"—which I don't think there is. At any rate, Google Ngram has no trouble assembling an Ngram plot for the phrase—although the frequency of the matches doesn't rise above the baseline until after 1860 and declines fairly substantially after 1970.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 4:17
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    Personally, I reject the premise of this answer that this sounds unnatural or "clumsy to modern ears".
    – JdeBP
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 8:31
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    It all depends if there is a difference between "if only an easy outline" or "if only an easily outlined [popular comprehensive classification]". I think the difference is this case is subtle, but to refer back to the noun is more useful when you end up with complicated sentences. To me the sentence rings better as written, has better flow.
    – Stian
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 9:05
  • 3
    But see Theta30's answer at What is the word that denotes the words preceding these nouns?. When you use a pair of pliers as a hammer, sticking to literal terminology you're using it 'as if it were a' hammer. It remains uncontestably a pair of pliers. // There have been long debates on this issue here and elsewhere. You'll find few (if any) grammarians saying that transformation to adjective has taken place in 99%+ of cases. // Wiktionary's good for semantics. Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 15:34

Here, one serves as a pronoun whose antecedent is classification.

Here’s a simple example:

  • Which bag would you like?
  • I’d like the blue one, please.

Adding a comma between the descriptor and the pronoun doesn’t maintain the sense and may make the whole sentence ungrammatical.

In my simple example, simply removing the word “one” doesn’t work either. In your quote, however, “outline” can be treated as a substantive, so “one” may be deleted as you suggest.

The intent of the original is a desire to have a classification, even one presented merely as an outline.

  • 3
    Quite right, but a closer parallel to the Melville guote might be "I'd like a bag, a blue one for preference, for my swimming costume and towel. Dropping 'one' from that sentence would be downright odd unless you went the whole hog and said "I'd like a bag, preferably blue, for my swimming costume and towel". But there's nothing wrong with the first version.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Sep 9, 2020 at 12:06
  • 2
    @BoldBen I don't think that's a better example. The confusion is because we now treat "outline" as almost exclusively a noun, and rarely or never use it as an adjective. For a more salient example, you could say "A doctor helps people, especially the sick ones." You could also say "A doctor helps people, especially the sick." Both of those make sense to us. We just stopped using 'outline' as a description. Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 14:24
  • @DarthPseudonym I think you might be right that 'outline' is used more as a noun than an adjective (it's also used a verb, of course) but it is still used as an adjective in some cases. More importantly the question is specifically concerned with a quote from Moby Dick. Melville was writing in the 19th C and using the language as it was then. Applying 21st C standards to Melville's writing is as appropriate as applying them to Shakespeare.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Sep 12, 2020 at 10:25
  • Far too simplistic an answer, with a specious example. Your example is far more idiomatic; idiomaticity is at least as important as obeying set forms of grammar. And analysis has been done on the acceptability of various {the [modifier] one} examples. 'The 2,4-dinitrophenylhydrazine one' would probably be considered inappropriate in scientific articles. Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 12:43

One is a pronoun, referring to the classification. It's the center of the noun clause “an easy outline one”, in which both easy and outline qualify one.

While older grammars classify one as a pronoun, modern grammars tend to classify it as an anaphoric common noun. This simplifies the rules around the usage of pronouns, because if one is classified as a pronoun, it's unusual in that it can have a modifier. However the meaning of one that is applicable here is listed under “One (pronoun)” in most dictionaries.

Here's what Melville is saying, broken down into shorter sentences:

  1. Now the various species of whales need some sort of popular comprehensive classification.
  2. For the present, the classification will be an outline classification, which is easy.
  3. Hereafter, subsequent laborers must fill in the outline classification in all its departments.

The expression “outline classification” is a set phrase with a well-established technical usage. Contextually, it seems to mean a classification that is presented as an outline, that is, a hierarchical presentation of categories, their subcategories, their subsubcategories, etc., without significant details regarding the content of the (sub…)categories. (Programmers and computer scientists would call this a tree structure.) Here are some usage examples:

It's somewhat uncommon to use a noun qualifier with one, but it can be done, especially when there's also an adjective. Here are examples that don't even have an adjective:

Although the planning system is the same regardless of whether a site is in an urban location or a countryside one, …
some people wrap that pig up in a pastry blanket, rather than a bacon one
Even though there are other types of showers (…), a tile one is a great option

  • 1
    One of your four examples (three here and one in the comment) could be construed as a reasonable recommendation (check the others for mistakes). And yes, some examples are far less unnatural-sounding than others. But 'an easy outline one' needs rephrasing. Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 11:48
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    @EdwinAshworth Your comment is not helpful. Which one do you consider reasonable? Why are the others not reasonable? What mistakes are you talking about? Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 12:12
  • 3
    @EdwinAshworth I'm not making any prescriptive statement. They are used by people who seem to be native English speakers and whose English doesn't include a high proportion of things that are obviously nonstandard. Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 15:49
  • 4
    Upvoted. This should really be the accepted answer
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 19:42
  • 1
    The word one here is not a pronoun! It is an anaphoric common noun. It occurs freely with determiners and can be modified by adjectives and also other nouns. Pronouns can't do this. If you could correct this point, I could give you an upvote. Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 1:12

This answer is intended as an addition to the existing discussion; it does not repeat the relevant information already provided, but queries some of the points made.

The OED cites fairly extensive use for outline in compound form:

outline drawing n.

1850 J. Leitch tr. K. O. Müller Ancient Art (new ed.) §74 Outline drawing and monochrome painting.

outline map n.

1836 in N. Amer. Rev. Jan. 258 An Atlas of Outline Maps; intended for the use of Students in Geography. 1911 Chambers's Jrnl. Jan. 79/2 The outline maps of the arena are so manipulated that it seems to fly past you. 1982 P. Fitzgerald At Freddie's iv. 30 Hannah..gave out some outline maps..on which the children were to fill in the capitals of Europe.

outline sketch n.

1835 Knickerbocker 6 63 I present an outline sketch of one of that species of the genus homo..which Custom has christened with the expressive appellation of Loafer! 1865 J. Lubbock Prehist. Times vi. 188 The facts already ascertained..supply us with the elements of an outline sketch. 1992 Artist's & Illustrator's Mag. May 20 Once I am happy with the outline sketch, I then roughly shade and mark out wrinkles.

outline plan n. a draft or sketch plan lacking details.

1850 Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) 140 169 Outline plan carefully constructed from the heart of an embryo, measuring 5 inches from the vertex to the coccyx. 1972 Guardian 5 Aug. 11/2 Westminster City Council are sitting on outline plans to knock down..a tenement of 89 flats. 1986 I. F. Roberts & L. M. Cantor Further Educ. Today 156 The decision to establish institutes of higher education..did not materialize wholly in the form proposed in the outline plan.

Melville uses ‘outline’ in a manner, similar to ‘outline classification’, in one other instance:

Of the Right Whale, the best outline pictures are in Scoresby; but they are drawn on too small a scale to convey a desirable impression. He has but one picture of whaling scenes, and this is a sad deficiency, because it is by such pictures only, when at all well done, that you can derive anything like a truthful idea of the living whale as seen by his living hunters.

Importantly, Melville uses ‘one’ after a modifying noun (Wiki) in one other instance also, though the full expression is more complex:

It was a humorously perilous business for both of us. For, before we proceed further, it must be said that the monkey-rope was fast at both ends; fast to Queequeg’s broad canvas belt, and fast to my narrow leather one. So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake.

To provide some context on the use of ‘one’ after a modifier in Moby-Dick, I include a few other examples below. Altogether, Melville used ‘one’ after a modifier just over 30 times, in a work that consists of around 210 thousand words and in which 'one' was used approximately 900 times.

For a perspective on whether this usage was out of the ordinary or is less frequent now, it is necessary to examine the same numbers, and some others, across other authors and time periods. Without such an analysis, an evaluation on whether this usage is at all unusual is not possible.

In Fowler's view, discussed in P. P. S., this usage is "established idiom".

They say that men who have seen the world, thereby become quite at ease in manner, quite self-possessed in company. Not always, though: Ledyard, the great New England traveller, and Mungo Park, the Scotch one; of all men, they possessed the least assurance in the parlor. But perhaps the mere crossing of Siberia in a sledge drawn by dogs as Ledyard did, or the taking a long solitary walk on an empty stomach, in the negro heart of Africa, which was the sum of poor Mungo’s performances—this kind of travel, I say, may not be the very best mode of attaining a high social polish.

No town-bred dandy will compare with a country-bred one—I mean a downright bumpkin dandy—a fellow that, in the dog-days, will mow his two acres in buckskin gloves for fear of tanning his hands. Now when a country dandy like this takes it into his head to make a distinguished reputation, and joins the great whale-fishery, you should see the comical things he does upon reaching the seaport.

The four whales slain that evening had died wide apart; one, far to windward; one, less distant, to leeward; one ahead; one astern. These last three were brought alongside ere nightfall; but the windward one could not be reached till morning; and the boat that had killed it lay by its side all night; and that boat was Ahab’s.

P. S. In addition to the sentence that is being discussed, that includes the expression 'outline one', Melville uses 'outline' on two other occasions. Although those usages are of a different kind grammatically and refer to a particular style of picture, their meaning may suggest (of one of them in particular - “mechanical outline of things”) that ‘outline classification’, as an expression, would have been quite possible, in Meville’s usage; this has already been shown, from a different point of view, as likely in Giles' answer and Sven's comments; additionally, Melville does use 'one' after a noun modifier.

Lastly, if we were to consider the question of whether 'one' is necessary in that sentence not just from a grammatical but broader point of view, we probably could say that, in the sentence, Melville's voice remains authentic. However, this is somewhat subjective without a more detailed examination.

Then again, there is an imposing quarto, written by one Captain Colnett, a Post Captain in the English navy, entitled “A Voyage round Cape Horn into the South Seas, for the purpose of extending the Spermaceti Whale Fisheries.” In this book is an outline purporting to be a “Picture of a Physeter or Spermaceti whale, drawn by scale from one killed on the coast of Mexico, August, 1793, and hoisted on deck.”

For the most part, the English and American whale draughtsmen seem entirely content with presenting the mechanical outline of things, such as the vacant profile of the whale; which, so far as picturesqueness of effect is concerned, is about tantamount to sketching the profile of a pyramid.

P. P. S. Some observations on the grammatical function of 'one' in the sentence discussed (Following a question in a comment below)

From Fowler's Modern English Usage (Second Edition):

One as a 'prop-word' is a name given by grammarians to the use of one or (ones) to support an adjective or other qualifying word or words that would be awkward or ambiguous standing alone.

The second resolution was the US one./The satellite was a small test one.

This is established idiom, but should not be employed unnecessarily. It could perhaps be argued that, even when not needed to remove awkwardness or ambiguity, one or ones may be justified as contributing a subtle emphasis: that His life was sedentary and lonely one gives sharper picture than His life was sedentary and lonely...

Melville's usage of 'outline one' does create an emphasis.

The OED (and Merriam-Webster; I will focus on the OED as it is more detailed in this particular regard) describes one in the capacities of an adjective, a noun and a pronoun.

There are numerous cases of usages in each group.

In the group of pronoun use, the OED cites:

V. As substitute for a noun or noun phrase.

  1. Following a determiner such as the, this, that, yon, any, each, every, many (a), other, such (a), what (a), what kind of (a), which, or (in certain phrases) following a, or (from Middle English onwards) following an ordinary adjective (occasionally also a noun used attributively) preceded by any of these or (in plural) alone.

1799 A. Young Agric. County of Lincoln 194 There was a horse-pasture and a sheep one contiguous.

1815 J. Scott Visit to Paris xi. 238 Of all the practicabilities, which at present offer themselves to that country, the one that is most [promising] is the stability of the government of the Bourbons.

a1864 Ld. Tennyson Poet's Song 14 The nightingale thought, ‘I have sung many songs, But never a one so gay.’

1868 E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest II. App. 604 There is no reason to think that the pilgrimage was other than a self-imposed one. 1875 H. J. S. Maine Lect. Early Hist. Inst. xii. 342 The examination of new materials and the re-examination of old ones.

1881 F. J. Britten Watch & Clockmakers' Handbk. (ed. 4) 67 Drawing out the quarter screws of the balance nearest the fast position..and setting in the ones nearest the slow position.

1911 Encycl. Brit. XXVI. 29/2 The shaping machine does for comparatively small pieces that which the planer does for long ones.

1953 H. Mellanby Animal Life in Fresh Water (ed. 5) xi. 229
Water-snails are similar in appearance to the familiar land ones.

1956 J. C. Powys Brazen Head (1969) i. 12 She waved her hand, the one that wasn't being used to prevent his getting up.

  1. Following a determiner or adjective (as in sense C. 13), without contextual reference: a person having the characteristics indicated.

1973 M. P. Holt & D. T. E. Marjoram Math. in Changing World ii. 21
There seems to be evidence for an evolution of intelligence from Homo faber, the tool-user, to Homo sapiens, the wise one.

  1. a. A person or thing of the kind already mentioned. Also (Irish English (northern)) in plural. Formerly also used pleonastically or emphatically at the end of a clause or sentence.

1983 M. Roberts Visitation v. i. 158 She begins to recognise this landscape, one she has visited before.

However, the OED does not regard this class of pronouns as indefinite.

(This may need further examination, and so to be continued...)

  • 4
    Hi, Anya. I upvoted your answer because it shows research effort and demonstrates how certain 19th-century authors sometimes used "outline" as a modifier. Nevertheless, I would recommend dropping the first and third examples from Moby-Dick that appear near the end of your answer because neither of those instances involves the use of "outline" as a modifier. The second example, on the other hand, is on point. Also, as I noted in a comment beneath Edwin Ashworth's answer, the phrase "an outline classification" appears in quite a few books in the Google Books database going back to 1864.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 4:31
  • Hi, Sven, this is extremely helpful. You are absolutely right - two of the three Melville's examples are of a different kind, and this may not be obvious. I amended the answer. I agree that the fact that 'outline classification' is a term is a very important point.
    – Anya
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 13:13
  • As a relatively new user on this exchange, may I ask to please explain the down vote. As I stress the answer is not intended to be a complete answer, but an additional insight that may be of help; and I avoid repeating information already given. If this should be done differently please, let know how - I would really appreciate it. (Incidentally, I previously upvoted one of the other answers and the question.)
    – Anya
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 13:17
  • 1
    +1. Melville was more comfortable with "outline" as an adjective so he used the placeholder "one" as a pronoun. We might say today, "I don't need a full report, I just need an outline one".
    – CCTO
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 16:06
  • Thank you for the suggested edit. I followed the advice to reduce in some places; but also added some points, as have thought of some other points, but the spirit remains the same - this is not intended as an answer in its own right. (Apologies, I am not sure how to respond directly, on account of being relatively new user). Any further edits are very welcome!!!!
    – Anya
    Commented Sep 12, 2020 at 1:08

There is a phenomenon of anaphoric reference that makes it remote and so somewhat detached from the referent - many of the examples given in reply have this quality.

Now the various species of whales need some sort of popular comprehensive classification, if only an easy outline one for the present,[...]

In Melville's quote this is happening to a small degree. "One" could be replaced by the referent "popular comprehensive classification" or just "classification" and our memory will be eased by the repetition of the actual referent; or "one" could be eliminated altogether so that there is no anaphoric reference to exercise our memory.

I earlier said that there is a slight detachment of the anaphor: it is caused by the word "easy" qualifying "outline". Using "easy" causes a bit of a hiccup in our interpretation because what else should an outline be but easy - "easy" used here is a pleonasm. If "easy" is eliminated then "one" is less remote, and if both "easy" and "one" are eliminated there is no loss in understanding and our memory is less exercised.

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