Grammar Question: Different meanings of “only one”

Photo: foxypar4

I was asked another challenging English grammar question today that I thought I’d present to the interested English teachers out there.  This comes straight from our third-year high school textbook.

First off, read this:

“In fact, recent research has revealed only one significant difference, in terms of content, between male and female gossip: men spend much more time talking about themselves.”

Hmmm, interesting! (I learn so much from reading my students’ reading assignments).

Okay, now read this, and tell me if it is True or False:

“According to recent research, in terms of content, the fact that men spend more time talking about themselves is only one significant difference between male and female gossip.”

Go ahead and choose if it’s true or false.  It’s not a trick question (just a little confusing).  As a native speaker, you can probably feel the definite inkling that it’s “false”.  You can probably also decide that it comes down to the words “only one”.

When reading the first sentence, I know that there is only ONE significant difference between their gossip.  However, when I read the T/F question, I get the impression that there are various differences with significance, and that is merely one example of the many significant differences.

How, as a native speaker, am I aware of the different uses of “only one”?  Work on that for a while, grab a coffee and a cookie, and let me know if you’ve got an answer (or a theory).

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One thought on “Grammar Question: Different meanings of “only one”

  1. Only one in the t/f question uses only as a modifier. If you drop the only, it still means basically the same thing, as the use of one indicates it is one (of many) differences.

    Compare to “The one difference”; “The one and only difference”; “the only difference,” in which difference is the modified noun.

    Ouch, my brain.

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