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I'm confused because I've seen both mentioned in dictionaries.

Example sentence (context: writing a story):

On (the) one hand, I want to wrap up everything perfectly. On the other hand, I want to leave some ambiguity to the reader.

What's the correct/conventional choice? Maybe this is an American/British English issue?

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  • It appears that there are native speakers who swear by each version, and are amazed that anyone could think the other is right. Make of that what you will. – SamBC Mar 3 '19 at 16:13
  • Note that non-native speakers may be mapping their own languages' expressions to English. For example, in Portuguese we use "por um lado" and "por outro lado", which would map better to "on one hand" (although, by extension, the second part would then be "on another hand", which I've never seen). I was surprised when I first saw the "the"; I had always used the the-less version, so adding the "the" felt unnatural — but I don't know if that was due to exposure to native speakers using the the-less version, or due to my bias from Portuguese. – waldyrious Jun 4 '20 at 16:41
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Either is fine.

I'm not aware of any regional differences in usage.

Edit two years later

I probably didn't think very carefully about this answer at the time, but given the subsequent comment and other answers I am satisfied that it is still correct.

My answer, in case of doubt, refers only to the use of the expression when used to compare to contrasting things (as the OP requested).

Either of these two options is completely idiomatic and acceptable to native English speakers, even if they don't realise it.

One one hand ..., on the other hand.

On the one hand ..., on the other hand.

Omitting 'the' before 'other hand' is not idiomatic, at least in American and British English. In fact it makes logical sense that 'the' is required in the second part of the comparison. The 'one hand' could be any generic hand (no article) or a specific one (definite article). 'The other' refers to the 'matching hand' of the first one. There can only ever be one, and it is being referred to explicitly as the partner of the first, therefore it needs a definite article.

While I'm still not aware of regional preferences towards one style or the other, it seems likely from comments that they do exist. I don't think it is an North America/Britain distinction, however, and may be highly regional. For instance, I know that in Ontario 'the one' is not only preferred, but sometimes used in a way I find odd to refer to a member of a group. Eg "The one student is very badly behaved" where I would expect "One student is very badly behaved". In this context "on the one hand" would also be likely to be preferred.

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  • 2
    As an American, I have never heard of "On the one hand" and upon seeing that, I thought it was a mistake! – firedraco Mar 3 '19 at 4:25
  • As an American, I have only seen and only use: On the one hand and on the other. – Lambie Jul 17 at 17:36
11

"On the one hand" is clearly a figure of speech.

On the other hand, "on one hand" can be a literal reference to a person's hand.

As a native British English speaker, I would always use "on the one hand … on the other hand" in the OP's context. There is no logic in omitting the first "the" and including the second, but nobody ever says "on other hand" in this idiom (or anywhere else), so use "the" twice.

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  • On the other hand, that's literally how you'd say it outside of the context of idioms (quite literally: you have one hand, and then you have the other hand) and as a native British English speaker that's how I say the idiom as well. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 2 '19 at 23:35
  • This is not something "British" at all. It's in all standard varieties of English. People get their knickers in a twist about this kind of thing. I do not get it. I say if an American speaker says (AND I am an American), one one hand, I would simply consider that ignorance. – Lambie Jul 17 at 17:37
  • @Lamdie. It's exactly like 'one side' and 'other side' isn't it? You can say 'on one side you have the red team, and on the other you have the blues', or you can say 'on the one side you have ...'. Seems to me that both are grammatical, and both are correct and commonly used. So ... I'm not sure where ignorance comes into it, other than ignorance of variety in spoken English? But maybe I'm missing your point. – fred2 Jul 18 at 2:53
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The idiom in English, regardless of variety, is:

  • On the one hand ||| on the other [hand].

The second hand is optional and this has nothing whatsoever to do with British versus American English at all.

All the dictionaries agree.

Collins Dictionary

Cambridge Dictionary

Merriam Webster

On hand: We have no merchandise on hand.

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3

In most contexts, when contrasting "one" with "the other", the article is not used before "one".

I would class On the one hand and on the one side as idioms.

In the NoW Corpus "On the one hand" has 28822 hits, and "On the one side" 1657, against 2504 examples of "On the one [any other noun]" - (349 of these are "on the one show", and nearly all of these are "On The One Show", so they don't count).

"On one hand", without "the" has 18297 hits - only about 2/3 as many.

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  • books.google.com/ngrams/… paints a different picture, I'd say. A cursory glance at the first page of the results for the latter query in the NoW corpus reveals at least 25 out of 100 non-anglophone sources (India, Pakistan, African countries); having said that, there are regardless an appreciable number of anglophone writers using the phrase. For comparison, there's around a thousand hits in NoW for on other hand, almost without exception produced by non-native speakers/writers of English. – user3395 Mar 2 '19 at 23:02
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It’s an idiom. Well, actually two of them.

“On the other hand” is often used to preface counterarguments to one’s thought process.

By extension, “On the one hand ... on the other hand ...” is used when one has two conflicting ideas and wishes to clarify them aloud. Example:

On the one hand, I really enjoy pie, but on the other hand, I’m supposed to be on a diet.

Both of these expressions use each hand to represent an opinion, as if weighing the pros and cons of each choice with the hands as the scale.

(Source: I’m a native AmE speaker.)

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