It’s not just the loneliest number, it is also one hell of a numeral: one. Native speakers may disagree, of course – native speakers know everything about there they’re their English except how to spell it – but one holds many surprises for those who try to master the language later in life, such as myself.
What’s so hard about one, you wonder? All the different uses, that’s what, and all the different non-uses as well.
It all starts with
(1) I have one book by Peter Trudgill.
No one can deny that this is an easy one: simply the first step in counting. It’s unambiguous and clear and one finds it in most, perhaps all, other languages too. But you’re likely to have noticed, being one of those linguistically perceptive persons who tend to read this blog, that in the above lines, I’ve already sneaked in several other uses of one:
(2) One of those persons
(3) One finds it in other languages too
(4) No one can deny
(5) One hell of a numeral
(6) That’s an easy one
Perhaps you think that other languages use one in these ways as well: not just (1), but all of them. You would be right for (2), which is indeed as common as sense, law and colds. Here’s the equivalents in German, French, Spanish, Danish and Dutch: eine dieser Personen, une de ces personnes, una de esas personas, en af de personer, een van die personen… But go beyond (2) and the trouble starts.
(3), one as a pronoun, is problematic in several ways. One might expect this one to mean ‘one person’, but it doesn’t: if ‘one should do that’, everybody had better do it. One’s meaning is closer to ‘any person’, but not quite that either: ‘one does one’s best’ does not imply that anybody, everybody, the whole of humanity, does his or her or their best. Sometimes, one secretly means ‘I’ or ‘you’ or ‘we’, though one can never be sure. One is vague, and its very vagueness is its dangerous attraction. We like to have a word like this. French has on, which looks like one, but is unrelated; it used to mean ‘man’. German and Danish actually have man, which is no longer masculine, but perfectly unisex. Dutch has men, which is ‘man’ with a vowel condition. Spanish, along with Italian and Portuguese, is the odd one out, using se (in a grammatically different way, one should add), which does not mean ‘man’ but ‘self’ – just who self remains unspecified, of course.
The trouble with one as a pronoun, the one of (3), is not over yet, because for some reason, many a one dislikes it. (Many a one – what the heck?) When I use it in writing, copy editors, especially the ones in their twenties and thirties, tend to chuck it out. They feel it’s stuffy and bookish and pre-internet. No doubt they’re right. But I love it all the same, probably because I am a book person who did grow up before the advent of the internet and if that means I’m stuffy, so be it. Moreover, when asked for a good alternative to replace, say, one finds, these editors are in trouble. You find may work, but often it sounds too upfront and personal. It is found may work, but that sounds about as stuffy. So, in the end, one compromises. One removes it from sentences where the editor convinces one that it damages one’s style, but one keeps it where it does no real harm. One may be lacking in coolness and street cred, but often I feel it’s the unworst option.
Then there’s (4): no one, someone, anyone, everyone. Not much of a problem here, really, but it just sounds so odd to the non-native ear. No odder perhaps than the words nobody, somebody, anybody and everybody, which make every English speaker appear to be permanently obsessed with other people’s coarse physical beings rather than their delicate mental goings-on. But still odd. Other languages mostly don’t do this. True, French has quelqu’un for ‘someone’, Dutch has iedereen for ‘everyone’ and in German, it’s sometimes possible to say irgendeiner for ‘anyone’ (or ‘someone’). But these are rare exceptions – though to what rule it’s hard to say, for there’s a lot of variation in how languages express these meanings.
Next: (5). I think even native English speakers will agree that there’s something curious about One hell of a… and similar phrases. It’s common of course, but it borders on the ungrammatical. Idiomatic, highly idiomatic. These things add spice to a language, to be sure, but spices don’t fill, they just add taste. One hell of a job, one bitch of a party, one horror of a Christmas… I’m not sure how far this usage can be stretched before reaching breaking point. One misery of a flu takes things too far, I suspect. One scandal of a show? One monster of a child? One dear of a child? Please, do let me know in the comments section. I’m eager to find out (and to see you disagree among yourselves, I wouldn’t be surprised).
And then there’s the last one, (6), with all its uses and bewildering non-uses. They are what started me thinking about one in the first place. But this post has become so long already, I think I’d better put this type of one off till next time.
Oh dear, I’m not much of a one for writing to length, it seems…