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…
In spoken English, at least in the UK, you would only ev… sorry, one would only ever find (3) in a kind of jokey way. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone below retirement age use it seriously, perhaps for the reasons Rob mentions. In written English you’re probably right in saying it’s often the best option, but I think unless it’s a rather academic piece of work I’d agree with your copy editors (who are, after all, the same age as me!) and use the impersonal you.
As for (5), it is curious but I think it sounds less odd if one substitutes ‘one’ for ‘a/an’ in many cases (‘he’s a helluva guy’). Of your examples, from the first group I reckon only ‘one hell of a job’ sounds normal but from the latter ‘one scandal of a show’ and ‘one monster of a child’ are both fine for me. In practice, one’s likely to hear some exaggeration in these phrases as the speaker will usually be somewhat worked up and say something like ‘one absolute scandal of a show’ or ‘one complete monster of a child’ (one can picture the speaker contorting their face upon reaching the word ‘scandal/monster’ before blurting it out in disgust). To my ear the addition of ‘absolute/complete’ makes it sound better but I don’t know if there’s anything in that or not.
(6) is just strange. I’d be interested to know if any other languages do something similar and how one would go about translating (6) into different languages. Obviously it depends on the context but in Italian (and I think something not dissimilar happens in Welsh to indicate possession, which I’m told is the reason for the Welsh often saying ‘this here’ and ‘that there’ when speaking English) I’ve always thought of ‘questo qua’ and ‘quello la’ as being pretty much equivalent to ‘this one’ and ‘that one’ in English – is the ‘this here/that there’ combination prevalent in other languages? Then again, I’m now undecided if the one in ‘this/that one’ is an example of (6) or if it should actually belong with (2).
Another interesting article by the way, thanks for the continued help in deciphering my language!
Thanks, Dave. This (as well as Rob’s, above) is the sort of comment I was hoping for.
Perhaps we should interpret one (5) quite simply as an emphatic a/an, as if the speaker slows down to bring home their point all the more forcefully. This makes sense both semantically (a and one have roughly the same meaning – compare a hundred and one hundred) and etymologically: a is a reduced form of an, and both an and one were pronounced the same, rhyming with modern rain.
You bring up an interesting point about (6) (into which I mean to go soon, time permitting). As I see it, the Italian and (apparently also) Welsh ways of putting this are examples of a common pattern. In German, French, Spanish, Danish and Dutch as well, it is indeed common to say ‘this here’ and ‘that there’. (With a noun, it usually becomes this thingamy here and that whatshisname there; in Danish, they prefer this here whatsit and that there whatshisface). However, the English use of one instead does seem to be exceptional. I can only remember coming across it in Danish, as in denne blå en, ‘this blue one’.
I’d disagree with Dave, I know plenty of people below retirement age in the UK who use 3). But I’d accept it’s a mark of the educated classes – in fact one of the most distinctive thereof. I suspect its decline in the general population can be tied to the introduction of comprehensive schools in the 70s, which saw a lot of formal grammar teaching go out of the window.
To my (British) ears, only “hell”(uva) sounds normal for 5) – and even that is a recognised Americanism that has slipped into British ?via WWII war films?? All the others just sound stilted and/or “foreign” in places where “a/an” would normally be used in British.
Thank you! So I was right in expecting that disagreement would come to light…
I wonder, by the way, if teaching grammar has much of an effect on people’s spoken language (on their mother tongue, that is). The effect on their writing is evident, I’d say; that on unprepared speech perhaps much less so.
I can confirm from my own experience that it certainly extends into spoken language – and as an example, here’s two Cambridge-educated intellectuals using 3) in conversation :
In contrast, you wouldn’t see it used in an interview with the average reality TV star. There’s definitely a class/education factor at work.
I’m not sure it’s so much about formal grammar teaching – I’ve had a lot of education, but I’ve had almost no formal English grammar instruction. Most of what I’ve had has come from learning Latin and from correction of essays in other subjects. In turn that relies on teachers caring enough to make the corrections for grammar, and a pupil having the nous to take them on board.
One (3) is very much associated with Her Majesty the Queen, who, in humourous imitations at least, often refers to herself as ‘one’: “One doesn’t like to be imitated on television.” As such it seems to be the successor to the famous pluralis majestatis: “We are not amused.” I think this more than anything else causes it to be out of fashion.
As it happens, later in the day I came across a case of (3) used, just as you suggested, by a mock royal – a mere mortal imitating the Prince of Wales, if I remember correctly.