Wednesday, August 09, 2006

One of the only

Many a prescriptivist will tell you that you shouldn't say "one of the only," that the correct usage is "one of the few."

Bill Walsh says not so fast:
It would be one thing if only always referred to one and only one thing, but that's not the case. Webster's New World defines only as "alone of its or their kind," and nobody objects to "only two people . . ." and the like. If "only two people" have done something, wouldn't one of those people be one of only two people, or one of the only people, who have done it?
James J. Kilpatrick took the issue up in January. He came to the same conclusion, albeit with a slightly different reasoning:
Patricia Spaeth of Auburn, Wash., moves for an injunction against "one of the only," as in, "She is one of the only sopranos ever to sing in three octaves." Her motion must be denied, not because it is unfounded, but because this idiomatic impossibility is too firmly entrenched to be dislodged. ... Dictionaries concede that "only" has come to mean "a very few." The example approved by Merriam-Webster is "one of the only areas not yet explored."


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