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

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.”

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”?

In that sense, the opponents of “one of the only” have a point. This term is less precise and potentially less clear than “one of the few.” So though “one of the only” isn’t wrong, “one of the few” is often better.

Though none of the reference books I checked addressed “one of the only,” most of them will give you an earful on a more common complaint about “only”: the idea that it must be placed immediately next to the word or phrase it modifies.

Take the sentence “I only saw three ducks.” Anyone who hears this knows what the speaker meant: He did not see four ducks, nor did he see five or six. Only three.

But, according to one view, the speaker is in error. His “only,” they will tell you, is not modifying the number of ducks. It’s modifying the act of seeing. So “I only saw” means I did not hear them or smell them or catch them or sing them a lullaby. I only saw them.

But there exists no rule saying so, and because these uses of “only” are almost always clear, there’s no need for a rule:

“The position of ‘only’ in standard spoken English is not fixed,’” Merriam’s usage guide says.

But when people sit down to write, they tend to make more conservative choices about where to put “only.”

“In current edited prose,” the guide notes, “‘only’ tends to be used in the orthodox position — immediately before (or sometimes after) the word or words it modifies.”

People don’t need to be told where to put “only.” They already know.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.”

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