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“There can be only one” or “there can only be one”?

Aside from being accurate in quoting from Highlander I had never really given much thought to the construction of this phrase, but I recently overheard a discussion in which one of the protagonists was adamant that there is a subtle difference in meaning between the two versions.

His reasoning was beyond me and I will not repeat it here for fear of tainting your views, however it did pique my curiosity.

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Hi Hairy Scot,

Interesting question. In my opinion, there is no difference in meaning between the two. In the case of the former, it seems to me that the more natural word order -- 'there can only be one' -- has been changed for dramatic effect and to emphasise 'only one', but again, that's just my opinion!

roland_butter July 16, 2013, 10:08pm

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There's a slight but well-known conflict with 'only', as purist grammarians say that any adverb, including 'only', should go next to the word it modifies, whereas most linguists and usage guides seem to agree that the most natural position for 'only' is between the auxiliary and the main verb, as in 'can only be' . And they also recognise that in a sentence like 'He only died last week' the vast majority of us immediately realise that 'only' refers to last week. But the pedants insist that this means that all he did last week was die. He didn't cook a meal, have sex or go for a walk; he just died.

Here's Grammar Girl with the more purist (pedantic?) argument :

These two sentences mean different things:
I ate only vegetables.
I only ate vegetables.

The first sentence (I ate only vegetables) means that I ate nothing but vegetables—no fruit, no meat, just vegetables. The second sentence (I only ate vegetables) means that all I did with vegetables was eat them. I didn't plant, harvest, wash, or cook them. I only ate them.

The humourist James Thurber didn't have much time for that sort of argument; he wrote: "The purist will say that the expression: "He only died last week" is incorrect, and that it should be: "He died only last week." The purist's contention is that the first sentence, if carried out to a natural conclusion, would give us something like this: "He only died last week, he didn't do anything else, that's all he did." It isn't a natural conclusion, however, because nobody would say that and if anybody did it would be likely to lead to stomping of feet and clapping of hands, because it is one of those singy-songy expressions which set a certain type of person to acting rowdy and becoming unmanageable."

I imagine that something similar is at play here, so here's my stab at it. To most of us they are exactly the same, but a pedant might argue that in 'there can only be one', as 'only' theoretically modifies 'be', not 'one' - it means that the only possibility is one (no more, but also no less, i.e. not zero)

But in the case of 'there can be only one', 'only' modifies 'one', so limits it to one, but doesn't rule out zero. Or perhaps it's the other way around!

Warsaw Will July 17, 2013, 7:37am

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I would go with "There can be only one" since it is usually true that adverbs usually go AFTER the verb TO BE as in "There IS only one choice", unlike "She only STUDIES in the evening"

Hélcio Fernandes July 21, 2013, 9:37am

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I know "only" is being used as an adjective here, I'm sorry.. but its instinctual.

Hélcio Fernandes July 21, 2013, 9:39am

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@Helcio Fernandes,

Actually, I reflected upon this question recently and concluded the same thing (only as an adjective, that is).

Jasper July 21, 2013, 1:12pm

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I agree that adverbs normally go after "be" when there is no auxiliary, and we wouldn't usually say "There only is one choice" (although we might if we were stressing "is"). But here we have a modal "can", which changes the situation. For example, in answer to the question "Where have you been in France?" we'd normally say "I've only been to Paris", not "I've been only to Paris".

And in Hairy Scot's original example I still maintain that the more natural position for "only" is between "can" and "be" is. And I don't appear to be alone:

Google search is totally skewed by the "Highlander" quote, but on Google Books (edited and proofread) we have:
"there can only be one" - 709,000
"there can be only one" - 155,000

And they mostly seem to be used with exactly the same meaning (mostly to do with religion).

"there can only be one ultimate cause of rational change in general"
"there can only be one church"
"there can only be one thing"

"there can be only one Church"
"there can be only one human reason"
"there can be only one religion"

And you were right the first time, "only" is still an adverb in "can be only one", as in "Only five people turned up" (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary - only: adverb). "She is the only one for me" - there it's an adjective.

There seems to be a strange discrepancy on Ngram, which graphs a selection of Google Books (about 5% I think). On the Ngram graph, the instances of "there can be only one" are about double those of "there can only be one" (although the difference is less in British English). But if you click on the two phrases, at the bottom, you get the same results for Google Books as I got above, which give a very different picture. Very strange.

Warsaw Will July 21, 2013, 1:48pm

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Dunno why, but I lean toward "there can be only one".
Perhaps because it does seem to have a slight difference in emphasis.

Hairy Scot July 21, 2013, 1:56pm

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Or maybe, like Google, I am skewed by The Highlander.

Hairy Scot July 21, 2013, 1:57pm

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I know my comment is not related to your posting but I am desperate to know what font are you using here. I love it so much and plan to download it. Thank you so much!

Liza Razali November 22, 2016, 9:15pm

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