Friday, April 19, 2013

On the other hand ...

You are all no doubt aware of the double linking device - On the one hand ... on the other (hand) ... used to contrast two ideas, for example:
On the one hand we could try that new restaurant on Park Street. On the other, we could just stay at home and order a pizza.
But can we use just on the other hand without the introductory On the one hand? Can we say:
We could try that new restaurant on Park Street. On the other hand we could just stay at home and order a pizza.
I asked some of my students this question the other day. How do you think they answered? How would you answer?


In the (language) news

In an article at the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, an editor and professor of English bravely admitted that for a number of years she had been "correcting" instances of on the other hand if they did not follow a corresponding on the one hand, thinking that they formed two parts of an obligatory pair. Having done a bit of investigation, she has now come to the conclusion that she had been wrong all along.
At the influential linguistics blog Language Log, Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum congratulated her honesty in coming clean and then showed the results of a little experiment he had run. Looking through articles at the Wall Street Journal, he found that in nearly 90% of cases on the other hand stood alone, with no preceding on the one hand. And as he points out, this was from "copy-edited, published prose by experienced journalists working for a newspaper of national and international prestige".

A couple of points to note

The author of the Chronicle article discovered that on the other hand is popular in both less formal spoken language and in more formal academic writing, often being used in the latter instead of in contrast. So it's a useful little expression to get the hang of.
  • By this time it should be quite clear that using on the other hand on its own is absolutely fine.
  • On the other hand, if you start with on the one hand, then you need to complete the pair.
  • And if you do start with on the one hand, you can drop the hand in the second part, especially when the two parts are quite close. In fact it probably sounds better like that. (As in my opening example)


As we've seen, the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary points out the optional nature of the first part. What's more, my students instinctively knew that it was optional (nothing to do with me, I have to say!). I can't help thinking that this is just another example of ESL/EFL students getting rather better language advice than many native speaker students. Too many schools of English and websites aimed at native speakers irrationally criticise things like the use of the passive, which instead of that in defining relative clauses, and the use of singular they, amongst many others.
The rules EFL/ESL teach are rather closer to normal Standard English, I think.



Prinz said...

Nice to know this. I read on another website, whose authors are professional medical writers, that "on the other hand" should always go with "on the one hand". I was baffled because I had always used "on the other hand" without the introductory "on the one hand".

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