“One of the only”: the ambiguous phrase that keeps popping up. I don’t know what this means — and neither do your readers.
A recent newspaper story about Martha Stewart’s sale of her brand quoted a branding maven: “When [Stewart] started, she really was one of the only people in this category in terms of experts that were really relevant.”
Let’s overlook the issue of whether Martha is a “who,” not a “that,” though some grammarians have recently blessed such a departure from traditional syntax. There’s also the question of whether, if she were “one,” she was (not were) relevant. (No, we are not dealing with the subjunctive here.) Or does the speaker mean it was the experts “that were really relevant”?
Why “One of the Only”?
At best, this sentence is confusing. Does the speaker mean Martha was the only one? Does she mean “one of the few”? “One of a handful”? If Martha and Suzy Homemaker were the only experts in the field of “do-it-yourself domestic makeovers,” Martha’s field per the article, that would be interesting. Maybe the speaker didn’t know off the top of her head who the experts were in 1991 — or even how many there were. We can cut the speaker some slack because she was responding to questions in an interview without time for revision. Also, her expertise is branding, not domestic makeovers.
The thing is, the same day I read this headline on a legal website: “South Carolina Is One of the Only States That Still Doesn’t Have a Hate Crime Law.” The article clarifies that five states lack such a law. So why did the headline writer choose this construction? Why not write “South Carolina Is One of Five States Without a Hate Crime Law”?
Lawyers are in the business of communicating ideas clearly. Googling “one of the only” brings up the comments of two sets of language warriors: those who say this idiomatic expression is perfectly fine and those who say it is meaningless if not offensive.
Are you willing to gamble your case or your client base on which camp your judges and clients fall in?
If you use this construction, please stop. Unlike the branding guru, you don’t get a pass on not knowing the details. Your job is to nail down the ambiguities before your fingers touch the keyboard. Your raison d’ ệtre is communication to or on behalf of your client without confusion and without raising eyebrows because of your phraseology.
“One of the only” covers up a knowledge gap with squishy, can’t-put-your-finger-on-it language. If you know the number, such as the number of states without a certain law, tell the reader. If you don’t know, and it’s important, find out. If it’s not important, don’t include it in your brief or client report.
In 1991, Martha Stewart was a pioneer in calling public attention to home-based skills. Does it matter to a discussion of her brand how many pioneers there were?