I'm having a hard time finding a phrase I'm contended with in regard to a sole item. I tried using "the only one" but for some reason it rings as referring to a person, not an item (but hey, maybe it's just me). I guess an instance is in place to describe my problem precisely:

The pink plate wasn't the only one covered in grime.

The Lansdowne portrait wasn't the sole hung on the vast wall.

The first sounds, to me at least, as talking about a person not a plate. The second sounds plainly wrong, but then again if I insist on keeping "portrait" adjacent to "Lansdowne", how can I possibly write "portrait wasn't the sole portrait". These are just two examples.

Just to make things even clearer, I don't want to use "the only item" because I'm talking about an item out of the same set of items. The pink plate is stationed among other plates and no other cutlery, the first sentence is to convey the idea that some other plates (if not all) are also covered in grime (but plates only). The Lansdowne is hung among other portraits, but not among other canvases of things that are not people - portraits only.


3 Answers 3


? The pink plate wasn't the only one covered in grime.

This expression is perfectly normal and idiomatic.

However, you could also replace the pronoun one with an actual noun:

? The pink plate wasn't the only dish covered in grime.

But since you want to be specific about referring only to plates, and since it might sound a bit odd—although not wrong—to repeat plate, the following would work in your specific case:

✔ The pink plate wasn't the only one of its kind covered in grime.

Following one with its offsets any hint of one being used to talk about a person rather than a thing.

? The Lansdowne portrait wasn't the sole hung on the vast wall.

The use of sole is fine, but this particular sentence needs something added to it:

? The Lansdowne portrait wasn't the sole painting hung on the vast wall.

But if you specifically want to use portrait as the noun, and also want to avoid repetition, there is another way:

✔ The Lansdowne wasn't the sole portrait hung on the vast wall.

Since the noun portrait is mentioned closely afterwards, there isn't a need to also mention it immediately afterwards. In the context of the sentence itself, it becomes clear what is being discussed.

For example, in terms of style and what's idiomatic:

✘ The Volvo car was the only car on the lot.
✔ The Volvo was the only car on the lot.

The use of car is suspended until the latter part of the sentence. The same thing can be done with the painting.

You need to follow sole and only with either a pronoun or a noun. This is because they are adjectives and these particular words and sentence constructions require it.

In addition to using those two words, there are other expressions that could be used:

The Lansdowne portrait wasn't alone in being hung on the vast wall.
The Lansdowne portrait didn't hang on the vast wall on its own.
The pink plate wasn't uniquely covered in grime.
The pink plate wasn't the last to be covered in grime.

  • If OP wants to be specific about referring only to plates, that's already taken care of by his original phrasing. Unless further context somehow overrides the "default" referent for one, standard English syntax forces it to be understood as being synonymous with the nearest credible preceding noun. So in this case, the only one is exactly equal to the only plate. There's no need to talk about the only one of its kind, which would steer the audience into incorrectly inventing some more convoluted alternative, such as the only coloured plate. Sep 8, 2019 at 13:31
  • @FumbleFingers Leaving it as just one, as it is originally, is exactly what is trying to be avoided; that's the point of the question, that one conveys a sense of personhood which is inappropriate to a plate. (That's subjective, and I don't feel that way, but the exercise is to somehow avoid that connotation.) The question doesn't deny that one is specific, what it doesn't like is that it seems odd. By adding of its kind, it continues to be specific while also dispelling the sense of personhood that is being objected to. Sep 8, 2019 at 13:56
  • Well, yes. But the "answer" to that specific point is that OP is completely mistaken - there are no grounds whatsoever for supposing one might imply "one person", and OP seriously needs to be disabused of that notion, rather than have it "pandered to". Sep 8, 2019 at 14:35
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    Honestly, I agree with both - I know one can refer to both people and things, but so far I've rarely seen it being used for the latter. I need to abandon the association of one only to people; on the other hand, Jason's alternatives can be very assisting to other aspects of the reason I originally asked the question for. All in all - Thanks for the help both Fumble and Jason! Sep 8, 2019 at 14:46
  • @FumblFingers my Langenscheidt indexes "... das einzige the only thing; *der einzige the only one ...". However, the gendered paradigm of articles, determiners and pronouns differs and das in this case refers to the indefinite (it is raining, it is not clear) rather than neuter aspect: "Der [[masc]] Reifen ist das [[neuter]] einzige _ was ich noch brauche" (the tire is the only [thing] I still need) but "Diese Reifen sind die [[masc. plural]] einzigen die wir noch haben" (these tires are the only ones we have left). I'm a bit confused but have to agree.
    – vectory
    Sep 8, 2019 at 15:40

Disregard what "rings". You can use 'one', e.g. the last one, the next one, the only one, etc, to discuss any single item, whether an inanimate object, an animal or a person.

The pink plate wasn't the only one covered in grime.

This is fine.

The Lansdowne portrait wasn't the sole hung on the vast wall.

No. The Lansdowne portrait wasn't the only one (=only portrait) hung on the vast wall.


  1. pronoun

You can use one or ones instead of a noun when it is clear what type of thing or person you are referring to and you are describing them or giving more information about them.

They are selling their house to move to a smaller one.
We test each one to see that it flies well.

One (Collins Dictionary)


talking about it as if it was a person is fine, because it stands in subject position, where persons should normally stand. Figurative speech is nothing out of the ordinary. Native speakers would not even call it a case of figurative meaning. Your reasoning that makes you think otherwise probably reflects your native tongue (having no indefinite articles for example?).

Nevertheless, you can simply delete "one" in thos sentences without rendering a grammatically wrong sentence.

It wasn't the only covered in grime.

However, since English rarely inflects words, the determiner "one" is needed for clarity. In essence, "only-one" is a standing phrase and "-one" can be seen as a clitic, Where Old English would have had -e as part of the inflectional paradigm (compare German einzige, analyzable as *eins-lig-e, English one + ly, where ige was softened to just -y; more importantly, considering the long lost plural marker -n, I think it's likely that one is a mishearing of -en, or -an).

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    "It wasn't the only covered in grime" is "grammatically wrong". Sep 8, 2019 at 13:52
  • @MichaelHarvey it might grind your gears, rub you the wrong way and irk you beyond believe, but only is incombarable to say the least, and if superlative can stand alone, as in she was the prettiest dressed in all-black then she was the only dressed in black parses alright in my mind. It goes against prosody, morphosyntax and all, sure. Incidentally, German die einzig-ste with -st- reflecting the same superlativ suffix as prettiest is deemed wrong and a mere die einzige is to be preferred. Does not change the way people feel about the meaning.
    – vectory
    Sep 8, 2019 at 14:37
  • Just compare the weak inflection of the Old English aenlic. Standing next to the strong inflection amidst waning morphemes, some confusiin is bound to have taken place
    – vectory
    Sep 8, 2019 at 14:43
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    You are, I maintain, mistaken. Sep 8, 2019 at 14:50
  • @MichaelHarvey that could be the start of a very interesting comment. Please, go on. Maybe if you finish the thought you will agree after all.
    – vectory
    Sep 8, 2019 at 15:01

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