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A Word, Please:

Sacks and sacks of e-mails

April 22, 2009|By JUNE CASAGRANDE

I’m grateful for my readers. Based on the e-mails I receive, I’ve long known that insightful, smart, enthusiastic and reasonable people read this column. But this week I’ve found another reason to be grateful for my readers: I’m grateful they’re not New York Times readers — or at least not the same New York Times readers who posted comments about a recent grammar article on the paper’s website.

Take, for example, Rod Nelson, who wrote to the New York Times: “I keep seeing ‘one of the only .?.?.’ in your pages. Someone needs to do something about that.”

Many people believe that “one of the only” is wrong. They believe “only” often means “one.” So by their thinking, “one of the only” translates to “one of the one,” which is illogical. That’s why “one of the only,” some people say, should always be replaced with “one of the few.”

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It’s true that “only” emphasizes a thing’s singular nature, “His only son.” But, according to examples in “Webster’s New World College Dictionary,” “only” can modify a plural: “The Smiths were the only people who came.” So who’s to say you can’t flip that around to say, “The only ones who came were the Smiths” or even “Joe Smith was one of the only people who came”?

I try to remember to use “one of the few” instead of “one of the only” not because the latter is wrong but because the former is more precise.

Another reader posted: “Will you please take up the word ‘use’ in this column? Why do we say, ‘I used to read the news every day’ or ‘I am used to being an early riser,’” writes someone by the name of Laura. “I no longer read the news every day” is straightforward, but substituting ‘used’ seems to me confusing language. Is anyone else troubled by this?”

The trouble here is that Laura doesn’t know what a wealth of information can be found in the dictionary.

“use. v. intr. Used in the past tense followed by ‘to’ in order to indicate a former state, habitual practice, or custom: ‘Mail service used to be faster,’” says “American Heritage.”

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