or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, April 09, 2009

We Few

Here in the Independent (a UK newspaper) is a depressing look at Dubai. And here's a depressing sentence from the article:

Whenever I eat, I am one of the only people in the restaurant.

How did it happen that "one of the only" replaced "one of the few"? Because "one of the only" doesn't make any sense.

"Only" needs to appear in relation to something else. The nice thing about "few" in this context--in any context, really--is that it means something specific despite being vague, and that specific thing is "Two? Five? A dozen? Don't worry yourself about it, because the exact number doesn't matter." It suggests that you didn't waste any time actually counting.

"Only," though, is extremely relative. In the context of the sentence, it probably means something like "few" does. But it doesn't have to. Look at these pairs of sentences:

"There are only three people besides me in the restaurant."
"I am one of the only people in the restaurant."

"With a population of 31,612,897 in a land mass of 9,984,670 square kilometres, Canada has a population density of only 3.5 per square kilometre."
"I am one of the only Canadians in the world."

You may say that the usages of "only" are not quite the same between the pairs of sentences, and you may be right, but if I were a copy editor at the Independent, I would red-pencil "one of the only" pretty damned quickly. It's sloppily neologistic, it's imprecise in a way that "one of the few" isn't, and it's ugly, to boot.

The Wikipedia page on Canada, by the way, gets it right:

Canada is one of the few developed nations that are net exporters of energy.

This suggests that unwieldy, haphazard Wikipedia has a better editorial staff than the presumably respectable Independent. That's not right.


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