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A Word, Please: Finding one of the only good answers

December 24, 2011|By June Casagrande

Recently, a reader named John wrote to tell me that he saw this sentence in USA Weekend: “Mushrooms are one of the only vegetables rich in vitamin D.”

He wrote, “I don't think the ‘one of the only’ part is correct.” To John, “the one vegetable” makes sense, as does “the only vegetable.” But combine them in “one of the only” and the result seems wrong.

A lot of people have heard that “one of the only” is a no-no, but John’s take is interesting. The more common view is not that “one of the only” is redundant, but that it’s illogical: the only vegetable already means the one vegetable, the thinking goes. So saying “one of the only vegetables” is about as logical as saying “one of the one vegetable.”

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Though this seems to be a pretty widespread view, usage and style guides are surprisingly silent on this topic. I checked nine reference works, including “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” and “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” and none of them addressed “one of the only.”

That tells us that there’s no official “rule” against “one of the only.”

So then it’s just a matter of definition: Does “only” refer only to singular things? Or can it apply to plurals, too?

For that question, we turn to a dictionary. According to “Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary,” “only” has a number of definitions. One of them is “few,” and here’s an example this dictionary gives: “one of the only areas not yet explored.”

So not only do we know that “only” can mean “few,” the dictionary makers themselves use “one of the only.”

Clearly, “one of the only” is OK. But if we stop to think about that last Merriam-Webster definition, we can get right to the heart of people’s objection to “one of the only”: why, in a sentence like our USA Weekend excerpt, would you use “only” when you could use the far more specific and far clearer “few”?

That is, if you mean “few,” why would you use a word like “only” that has other possible definitions besides “few”?

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