A Word, Please: The curious case of 'these ones'

Recently, a reader named Nancy has been noticing salespeople using the expression "these ones." In her email to me, Nancy didn't mention the context. But we can guess what types of things she's been hearing: "If you're looking for a shoe with a lower heel, try these ones." "These ones also come in red."

The expression rang a bell with Nancy. She remembered some friends telling her they think "these ones" is bad usage, or perhaps just wrong. But they didn't explain why. So when Nancy heard "these ones" a few times recently, she recalled her friends' objections and started to wonder: "Is it just bad usage? Is the problem redundancy … the pluralizing of 'one'? What's going on here?"

Over the years, I've heard from a number of people who, like Nancy's friends, disapprove of "these ones." Most didn't explain what, exactly, they thought was wrong with it. So to get to the bottom of whether "these ones" is grammatical and proper, we have to analyze it from every angle.

The word "these" is often a pronoun. A pronoun does the same job as a noun, usually acting as a subject or an object. "I like these." "Did you see these?" "These are my best slacks."

Throw the word "ones" into any of these examples and you can see why some people might object: If "I like these ones" says the same thing as "I like these," then "ones" is an unnecessary word — perhaps even a redundancy.

When we consider "ones," we see another reason people might dislike "these ones." Doesn't one mean just one? How can it possibly be plural?

Both these objections to "these ones" are logical, leading many reasonable people to conclude that something's very wrong here. But in fact, "these ones" is grammatical.

True, the pronoun "these" can stand on its own in a sentence like "I prefer these." But when you add "ones" after it, it doesn't create a grammatical error, it just creates a new grammatical structure.

In "I prefer these ones," the word "these" is no longer a pronoun. It's an adjective — a job for which it's highly qualified: "These shoes don't fit." "Do you want these earrings?" "These pretzels are making me thirsty."

In each case, "these" is working as an adjective. So it's standard form to put a noun after it.

As for the noun itself, "ones," there's nothing wrong with that, either. In their instructions for how to form plurals, dictionaries make clear that you can make a plural out of any noun listed. So, according to the dictionary's instructions, you can take a noun like "one," add an S and get the plural "ones."

As "Word Court" author Barbara Wallraff says: "There's no grammatical reason why [these] shouldn't be allowed to modify the pronoun 'ones.'"

So now that we've established that "these ones" is perfectly grammatical, it may be surprising to hear that I would almost never allow this expression to get past me in an article I'm editing. Unless it was in a quotation, I would almost always change it to just "these."

Why? Because newspaper editing is based on the aesthetic principle that simplicity is elegance and extra words are a hindrance to the reader — they suggest that none of your words is carefully chosen, and that you probably have no compunctions about wasting the reader's time. Your words and information become like noise, which a busy reader is all too likely to tune out.

So I avoid "these ones," chopping it down to just "these" whenever possible. But if you disagree and want to use it, no grammar rule can stand in your way.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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