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During all the years she had sat in the garden in the cold evenings, too tired to bring herself to bed, she had been sustained by her concern for one only of the 12 dead astronauts orbiting the night sky.

The Dead Astronaut By J. G. Ballard

I wonder why it's one only of the 12 dead astronauts, not only one of the 12 dead astronauts or one of the only 12 dead astronauts.

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I have no idea, but you're right that it's strange. Only doesn't usually take that position in modern English, although compare the fossilized expression God only knows meaning "only God knows" preserving an older grammatical structure. In COCA, only one of the has 1057 results while one only of the has zero. –  snailplane May 9 at 11:17
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I wouldn't call it an error, by the way. It sounds poetic to my ear. –  snailplane May 9 at 11:20
    
I would call it an error. Given the context in which it occurs, it's intended to be basic prose narrative. I suspect a typesetting error. –  Merk May 10 at 6:12

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Of the two hypotheticals you offer,

only one of the 12 dead astronauts

would have been technically correct, but sounded like a reproach, as if the narrator/author was criticizing her for being concern with only one of them. By putting "one" first, the author ducks an idiomatic expression to avoid that connotation while keeping the denotation.

The other hypothetical

one of the only 12 dead astronauts

means something different, and is poor grammar. I'm trying to construct a sentence around it and I'm failing; it would be in a context in which there were a lot of astronauts imperiled or injured or otherwise expected to be dead, but only 12 were deceased.

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So why is it legit to swap the positions here? Maybe in some other cases it wouldn't work. –  Zhanlong Zheng May 9 at 10:28
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@ZhanlongZheng: this is probably more of a literary rhetoric. I cannot say if this is technically correct grammatically (although I believe it probably is), but it is not a common usage either –  user13267 May 9 at 11:43
    
@ZhanlongZheng, we have an idiom in English: "poetic license". Poetic license refers to the idea that it is acceptable to bend or break rules of grammar when one is writing artistically, so long as the intent is decodable by the (presumed native speaker, highly linguistically capable) reader. There is a great history in Western literature of reordering the words in sentences to make poetry work; this goes back at least to the ancient Romans writing verse in Latin. The thing is, [continued] –  Codeswitcher May 9 at 18:47
    
[continued] Latin is an inflected language and one can shuffle word order without risking syntax, because each word mostly caries its role in the sentence via an identifying ending. English communicates syntax almost exclusively through position in a sentence, so it's not so supple: English has fewer degrees of freedom in word order than Latin does. But still, because of our classical literary heritage, it is part of our artistic tradition. –  Codeswitcher May 9 at 18:49
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Wonderful, but I suggest you moving the comments in the answer. –  Zhanlong Zheng May 10 at 1:05

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