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You Don't Say
John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.
News You Don't Say

Logic is rare

Oliver Wendell Holmes the younger famously said in The Common Law, "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience." What Mr. Justice Holmes said of the law is true a fortiori for language. 

I was reminded afresh of this today when I came across a post at Jan Freeman's Throw Grammar From the Train on one of the only. She points out that James Harbeck posted on the idiom at Sesquiotica  in 2011, touching off an argument in the comments that continues three years later. 

Here's what Mr. Harbeck said: "I’ve always understood it. It’s a well-established idiom. But some people find it irksome: to them, only can only mean 'one' – they may have that as a feature of their personal version of English, but likely they learned it from someone else 'pointing it out' – and so for them one of the only is not just wrong but annoying (as 'errors' you just learned can seem to be: a reaction that has much more to do with in-group and out-group than with clarity or effective communication)."

And, he argues, the phrase contains a nuance of meaning worth keeping:

"In the case of one of the onlyonly means 'without anything else.' You can say 'there are only three people I know who can do this' and it’s not wrong. To say it must mean 'one' flies in the face of established usage.

"The difference, therefore, is that one of the few focuses on small quantity, while one of the only focuses on limitation. That’s a subtle difference in focus worth preserving."

The comments that follow are of the sort one always encounters: It's an error. It's illogical. I don't like the sound of it. I am willing to quibble endlessly over gossamer distinctions. And then the ad hominems: "tin ear," "lazy," "imprecise." 

We know perfectly well that English is full of idiomatic expressions that do not mean what they literally say. We know perfectly well that head over heels should logically be heels over head to mean a topsy-turvy situation, but we accept the idiom. 

But as Mr. Harbeck says, an idiom can become a burr under the saddle when someone is convinced that it is illegitimate. My worthy colleague the celebrity copy editor Bill Walsh devotes a substantial chunk of Yes, I Could Care Less to inveigh against could care less in favor of couldn't care less. I regret that he and I differ on the point, but I see could care less as an idiom and have never found it an obstacle to understanding the speaker's or writer's intent. 

What I suppose underlies kvetching about illogicalities in English is an attitude or belief that the language has some kind of Platonic or ideal form apart from the people who speak and write it (usually the one encountered in school in adolescence). 

That is just not so. English does have rules and structure that linguists and grammarians describe, but they are not based on logic. English grammar is like English spelling, an accumulation of disparate and sometimes contrary elements. The meanings of words and the very grammar of the language are mutable, subject to cultural changes and historical accidents. 

What linguists tell us, and this is what gets up the noses of the peeververein, is that the language is what we collectively make it to be over time. This is why we ditched declensions and conjugations from Old English. This is why we collectively decided from the eighteenth century on that you could be a singular pronoun as well as a plural, relegating thou and thee to ecclesiastical and poetic contexts (and less and less so even there). 

I could care less whether you object to one of the only. It's out there (Ms. Freeman points out that it beats one of the few in Google hits, 3-1), and it's widely understood. Among the ludicrous language debates raging online, carping about idioms looks spectacularly pointless. 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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